A Japanese startup is using 3D printers to make custom-made prosthetic limbs more affordable and widely available.
Prothetic limbs are very expensive, but if a business or healthcare provider owns a 3D printer with the capability to shape medical plastics and polymers, than the price will drop and varieties will increase.
Children with missing limbs need prosthetic replacements to fit their growing and evolving bodies every six to 12 months, according to the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation. Adults are advised to seek an updated limb every three to five years. That equates to approximately 25 separate limbs throughout the course of a human life.
A prosthetic limb, which is usually handmade, costs on average roughly $4,200 in Japan, according to health ministry data obtained by The Wall Street Journal. In America, prosthetic limbs (specifically legs) can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000.
SHC Design Chief Operating Officer Yutaka Tokushima said that its printers will likely be able to generate prosthetics for around $100. For every time a new prosthetic is needed for a patient, the stored data is readily available to make another.
Not only will it make the technology cheaper, but it will also make it more functional by amplifying comfort and personalization.
“There’s a perception out there that [prosthetics] users shouldn’t need a lot of options,” Fuminori Ando, an employee of SHC Design and a user of a prosthetic leg, told The WSJ. Ando can now swim with his new artificial leg and even put on sandals that fit — something that was not easy with his old, less advanced prosthetic.
SHC Design Inc. teamed up with rubber manufacturer JSR Corp to make the artificial body parts out of an elastic polymer, which is placed into the specialized printer that can handle the soft, malleable mixture. The material is intended to be as close to skin and flesh as possible, but still usable for the printer and other medical devices.
The printer uses a template to create the correct proportions of the leg and even designs the limb to allow for certain accessories and clothes.
Tom Fise, executive director of the American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association, told The WSJ that as far as he knows, SHC Design’s completely printed artificial legs are the closest to market out of any company.
“I wanted to provide my product to those really in need,” said SHC Design Chief Executive Tsuneo Msuda.
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