The Promise of Prosthetics for Kids with 3-D Printing and Plastics

Professor Plastics

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3D printed prosthetic hand

Image courtesy of Ranee Stollenwerk.

3-D printing is hot. It appears that everyone from Ford Motor Company executives to arts and crafts enthusiasts is touting the promise of this modern technology.

Whether it’s prototyping a company’s next car model or printing bespoke buttons in your basement, there’s no doubt that 3-D printing has some really cool applications.

But I have a favorite. Whenever I need a jolt of raw emotional inspiration, I read stories or watch videos about kids who have received the gift of motion through 3-D printed prosthetics made with plastics.

Caution: Tearjerker alert.

If you need some background on 3-D printing, you can check out my articles about industrial uses, desktop models, and sustainability. In a nutshell, a 3-D printer functions sort of like an ink jet printer—except instead of using ink to print a flat image on paper, it typically uses plastics or some other materials to build an object, layer upon layer in three-dimensions.

I am always saddened by the large number of children born with missing fingers or other appendages—plus the thousands of others who lose limbs to lawn mowers, car crashes, other accidents … and war. Providing prosthetics for kids is doubly challenging: not only are prosthetics typically very time consuming and expensive to create and fit, but they need to be replaced repeatedly as kids outgrow them … making them even more expensive and challenging.

One of the really encouraging trends in 3-D printing is the collaboration of various people and organizations that has dramatically reduced the time and expense of creating and fitting prosthetics. While some of these prosthetics today may have more limited utility than the original models, they can dramatically improve mobility and possibilities for these kids. And they’re evolving.

Here are a few examples that inspire me, with links to the original words and imagery since I can’t say it any better … especially with tears in my eyes.

  • College students in Ohio used e-NABLE’s designs to create a prosthetic hand for a five-year-old boy who loves baseball. Watch the Today Show tell the story of little Jack’s “Iron Man” hand with a glow-in-the-dark laser—and how he threw the ceremonial first pitch at a professional baseball game.
  • This 2012 “Emma” example from 3-D printer maker Stratasys may be a bit dated, but the video provides a great explanation of the process and benefits of 3-D printing prosthetics using plastics. And it never fails to tear me up when I hear about “magic arms.”

The contributions to these kids obviously are immeasurable. And since these prosthetics enable mobility and productivity, they also can contribute to societal sustainability. Widely available, affordable prosthetics like these examples—and who knows what we’ll be able to create in the future—could help reduce some of the negative impacts resulting from injuries and disabilities on a large scale.

That’s something to be inspired by.