Health

3D Printing Is Helping Amputees Make Their Own Prosthetics

Artificial limbs can be incredibly expensive – and even the priciest models don't always work for the individual who buys them.
December 9, 2020, 8:45am
Prosthetic arms reaching for each other like in the "Creation of Adam" in the Sistine Chapel
Photo: AdobeStock / denissimonov

This article originally appeared on VICE France.

Millions of people worldwide wear prosthetics, either because they’ve lost limbs to accidents or to illnesses like diabetes, or because they were born without them. So-called aesthetic prosthetics mimic the appearance of arms, hands and legs, but are not very practical. Other prosthetic options don’t look realistic but are more functional.

Either way, artificial limbs are expensive. An aesthetic prosthetic can go for about €4,000 (£3,600), while high-tech models can cost up to €100,000 (£90,000). While each case is unique, the healthcare system in France generally helps amputees cover the costs. The UK has a similar system, but in countries like the US – where many people are uninsured, or at the mercy of private insurance companies – the costs often fall on the user.

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“We’re extremely lucky here, compared to the rest of the world,” said Jean-Pascal Hons-Olivier from the ADEPA amputee association in France.

Unfortunately, both expensive and more affordable models can be cumbersome and take years to be fitted perfectly, or months to repair if they break. Low-tech models can irritate your skin, since you’re wearing them all day, and – for some people – even get in the way of daily chores, like tying shoelaces or cooking. That’s why, according to Hons-Olivier, most people without an upper limb prefer not to wear prosthetics. “They’re more comfortable with their stump. With a stub, you can still make grub,” he joked.

Many amputees, like Hons-Olivier, make small modifications to their prosthetic, to improve comfort. “Unfortunately, some people make a lot of changes – maybe too many – and they don’t keep their prosthetist in the loop,” he said.

New technologies like 3D printing have made a huge difference for prosthetic DIY enthusiasts. After learning about 3D printing at work in 2014, IT consultant Thierry Quidam stumbled upon e-NABLE, a US-based open-source community that creates and shares 3D-printable prosthetics designs. He bought his own printer and founded e-NABLE’s French chapter a few months later.

Today, e-NABLE France connects individuals who need prosthetics – mostly children – with people who can make them. Their “Unlimbited” arm uses wire or dental elastic bands to replicate tendons, which help users catch a ball or ride a bike. “Each prosthetic is tailor-made and adapted to the user’s body,” Quidam said. Thanks to 3D printing, they can also personalise the prosthetics with prints, colours and themes chosen by the customer.

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This might seem superficial, but Quidam says the functionality of prosthetics is actually less important than their social value, especially for kids. “When children with amputations start school, they’re leaving the family cocoon and now they’re among all these other kids,” he said. “Their new hand can change their status from ‘disabled kid’ to ‘unique kid’ – someone the other kids might even envy a bit.” 

E-NABLE is not the only organisation working on DIY prosthetic arms and hands. Nicolas Huchet, 35, who lost his right hand in a work accident, decided to make his own prosthetic after buying a high-tech myoelectric hand (a prosthetic activated by muscle contractions) from one of the leading prosthetics companies.

Even though it was the most expensive model, he wasn’t happy with its functionality. “Wearing a prosthetic can suck,” he said. “It’s hard to make it feel comfortable and to get it to stay on.” Sweat and moisture can interfere with the sensors, and even break them, plus the apps used to make the hand work were “a pain”, according to Huchet. In 2013, he launched Bionicohand to develop his own myoelectric prosthetic.

Huchet used a combination of 3D printing and an open-source design library called Thingiverse to develop his model. Drawing inspiration from a 3D-printable robot by artist Gaël Langevin, he and his team built a myoelectric hand adapted to Huchet’s stump, and were able to operate each finger from a computer. Their prototype, coming in at about €400 (£360), attracted a lot of media attention and a €200,000 grant from Google. 

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Along the way, Huchet figured out his artisanal prosthetic was more than a mere alternative to a professionally made limb. At first, he was disappointed by the look of the prototype, but he later came to embrace it. “The 3D-printed hand didn’t hide my handicap – it showed it off,” he said.

Despite their flaws, professional products remain superior. But homemade prosthetics are shaking up the industry. These days, amputees need to go through quite an intensive process to get a prosthetic, and they often feel like big companies care more about profiting from high-tech expensive models than listening to their actual needs. “People’s health can’t be looked at in terms of profitability,” said Huchet. “Otherwise, you’ll end up with publicly-traded insulin.” 

He is developing a new system that would allow consumers to sidestep big companies by going through a network of small workshops. The idea is that prosthetics wearers can be active participants in the process, rather than just buyers. This new system would also be faster, and particularly helpful for kids, who outgrow prosthetics quickly. Huchet’s new organisation, My Human Kit, is heading up this project.

“The idea is to give the customer back some power,” he said. “The big companies may have a business plan, but we have a social plan.”