3D Printing is Making Prosthetics Affordable and Available Anywhere

The organization LifeNabled sees 3D printing technology as a way to help more patients live more normal lives in impoverished parts of the world.

Jun 22, 2019

Prosthetics are becoming more lifelike, lighter in weight, and are more usable than ever. With the advent of electronics and 3D printers, people who use prosthetics can grasp better, walk better, and even play sports.

Making a prosthetic device has always been a very labor-intensive procedure, and it is also very expensive. According to ABC News, a prosthetic leg can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 and wear out after three to five years. Artificial limbs for a growing child have to be replaced even sooner.

This is way beyond the means of people in developing countries. There are millions of people without limbs worldwide because of the cost involved or because they live in remote places where this type of healthcare is just not available. One doctor, Brent Wright a certified prosthetist and board-certified orthotist from the US, decided to change this.

Wright’s life changed in 2006 when he was invited by the founders of Hospital Shalom in San Benito, Guatemala, to launch a prosthetic program with a free prosthetic clinic according to LifeNabled. The clinic consisted of a cinderblock room that lacked electricity and only had a handful of donated used limbs. He quickly realized that this was not a good situation and that he had to figure out a way to develop something better.

Wright went back to the US  and started researching what was available, and with the help of Frank Hodges, the owner of SunStone Lab, the men designed a better system to make affordable, new, customized limbs.

By 2015, the clinic in Guatemala grew much larger and had many more patients that needed prosthetics. So, after volunteering there for nine years, Wright opened the nonprofit LifeNabled to be able to help even more people. He still returns to Guatemala twice a year to open a prosthetic clinic in San Benito in the Petén region of Guatemala

When the clinic opened, the 3D digital technology existed, but it wasn't practical for remote locations. “A ‘portable’ scanner that took up your whole suitcase would be about $50,000,” Wright, told Fast Company. “It just didn’t make financial sense.”

Today, making prosthetics has become much easier and much cheaper due to 3D printing. Wright can carry a handheld 3D scanner and materials for printing. With 3D scanning and printing, the cost of materials is down to as little as $4.

The hospital in Guatemala now uses 3D scanning and printing for prosthetic arms. Wright said that one of the patients was a 22-year-old woman who lost an arm in an attack. She was so depressed when Wright met her that she wouldn't even look at him, but when she learned that she could receive a prosthetic arm, her face lit up. It changed her life. The woman now works at the hospital.

The hospital is looking at getting a printer that can 3D print artificial legs - which have to be much stronger - but right now the cost is prohibitive. The organization hopes that the cost will come down. According to Wright, giving a patient a prosthetic leg can have a major impact on their life; it can allow a person to go to work and support their family, or a child living in a rural area to go to school.

LifeNabled is looking to train people in other developing countries worldwide to use the digital technology so that the nonprofit can use the files and make a prosthetic that could then be sent to the clinics. "That takes me essentially out of the loop: I don’t have to be hands-on on the patient care side of things. It also significantly decreases the capital expenditures for creating a lab,” Wright said.

The organization sees 3D printing technology as a way to help more patients live more normal lives in impoverished parts of the world.  Now prosthetics can be made with less time involved, fewer materials and a lot less cost. Just think of the possibilities.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.