Healthcare Technology Featured Article

April 28, 2014

How a $50 3D Printed Hand Proves a Match for a Prosthetic Costing $42,000

We've seen 3D printed medical devices before. Entire lower mandibles made from powdered titanium, prosthetic devices that render lung defects mostly moot points, heart models so realistic that same can be used to plan surgeries outright, and even the growing possibility of a complete 3D-printed kidney.  The idea hardly stops there, of course, as everything from replacement extremities and beyond is getting the 3D printing treatment, and for one man, a 3D printed hand is proving to be a match for a much, much more expensive prosthetic device.

For Jose Delgado Jr., the idea of prosthetic devices goes back a long way. He was born without a large part of his left hand, and thus turns to a prosthetic to supply the missing piece. He's currently using a myoelectric prosthesis, a device valued at around $42,000. But many can't afford such devices, and are left with inferior versions or little at all of value. For a group called e-NABLE, meanwhile, getting more of these devices to more users is extremely important, and thus, the group is looking to 3D printing to help fill the gap.

One of e-NABLE's volunteers, the founder of 3D Universe Jeremy Simon, had a new idea: take just $50 worth of materials, run same through a 3D printing setup, and see how the result stacks up against one of those impressive $42,000 models. While this may seem like a disastrous matchup in the making, the proverbial David in this story managed to hold its own nicely against the $42,000 Goliath.

Simon described the results of the testing to, saying “Certainly we're not making an apples to apples comparison -- these are entirely different kinds of devices -- but the comparison I was trying to draw with Jose was strictly in terms of day-to-day functionality what's more useful. It turned out [the 3D-printed] one was."

Simon actually brought Delgado Jr. in on the testing, and what Delgado Jr. discovered was that, in many ways, the $50 3D printed prosthetic actually did more than the $42,000 myoelectric version. Perhaps the biggest gain was in the grip the device could offer; Delgado Jr. discussed how the grip offered by the 3D printed model made carrying boxes a lot easier. But this isn't the end of the operation, rather just the beginning. Simon found the original design for the printed hand on e-NABLE, and increasingly, many people are providing time and insight at no charge in order to help projects like this get off the ground.

Given how many such devices we've already seen get run through the 3D printing process, there's a distinct possibility this genie won't be going back into the bottle. But there are organizations out there likely making substantial profits on that $42,000 myoelectric model that aren't going to be terribly happy about the idea of people being able to print such a device on a home 3D printer, itself a tool that's rapidly making its way to more users. So how will these device makers respond? Increased marketing to point out the benefits of the high-dollar model? Attempts to lobby against the construction and use of such devices? There are certainly possibilities afoot with this development, and the end result is going to likely be one to watch. Will we make our own devices at home? Will medical supply firms win out? Or will something completely different arrive?  In the end, only time will tell.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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