I wore a prosthetic arm until my early teens.
I had a basic “mitten arm” when I was a baby and then a hook arm and then a myoelectric arm. See some sweet pictures and video of my arms in this post. They all served their purpose during the times I wore them, but then, like many of us (congenital amputees), I stopped wearing it. For me it was a combination of things. It was heavy, cumbersome, and honestly not very useful in most situations. I was never uncomfortable with my appearance, so I didn’t need one for that, either.
In fact, it’s been over 20 years since I’ve worn a prosthetic arm and while the technology I’ve seen on TV from time to time is exciting, it’s never grabbed me enough to try it for myself. That said, something else has caught my attention lately and I think it’s the future of prosthetics.
I’m talking about 3D printed prosthetics.
This blows my mind on so many levels.
In particular, I see three reasons 3D printed prosthetics are the future:
Cost. Availability. Durability.
First of all, the cost. $50. FIFTY FREAKING DOLLARS. They reference the cost of $40,000 on average for a myoelectric arm, but that’s pretty low from what I’ve seen. And if you’re talking about the i-Limb and arms like it, you’re talking into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, from a cost perspective alone, these hands and arms are a dream come true.
Secondly, there’s the fact that these prosthetics are available to anybody. As she says in the video above, “Anybody that can get access a three-dimensional printer can have a hand.” I’ve worked for a health insurance company for nearly a decade, so I know first-hand (so to speak) the challenges of getting them to pay for a prosthetic device. Sure, you’ll hear a good story every now and then, but for the most part parents and amputees have to fight just to get basic limbs. The problem, in my opinion, is that the people making the laws simply don’t understand how prosthetics work, especially for growing children. Covering one prosthetic device for the lifetime of the patient would be laughable if it wasn’t such a devastating circumstance.
Lastly, the durability of these devices is spectacular. Let me explain. They’re made out of hard plastic and wires and screws you can buy at a hardware store. So, if something breaks, you print the part and repair it! No visit to the prosthetist. No costly repairs to any electronic components. And you can use them anywhere! Miles O’Brien shared his first-hand experience with the high-tech, expensive arms that he’s been looking at and the limitations they have, especially when it comes to harsh conditions (Listen here). One simple example is if you encounter wet conditions. The high-tech arms are highly susceptible to water damage, whereas the 3D printed devices are not.
None of this is very good news, I assume, for companies that produce and sell high-end electronic prosthetic devices. And please don’t hear me saying that there isn’t a place for them. There is. I’m simply saying that the 3D devices provide an option for the many millions who don’t have access to the high-end devices. I can’t say enough about the folks involved with e-NABLE and their efforts in this endeavor!
So, are the 3D printed devices as aesthetically pleasing? Depends on your taste. Are they as advanced? Not really. But, due to their cost, availability and durability, I believe they are the future of prosthetic devices. And I firmly believe, due to the open nature of their creation, that the quality of these devices will continue to improve.
And ultimately, when I see my friends affected positively – like Sam, pictured below – I know we’re onto something good.
What do you think? Have you had experience with either of these options? Share it below!