Accessibility links

3-D Printing Become Efficient Way to Create Prosthetics

People who are missing a hand or an arm traditionally would have to pay thousands of dollars and wait for weeks for an artificial one, called a prosthesis. But 3-D printing is providing a much cheaper and faster alternative.

3-D-printed hands are changing the lives of children around the world. One such child lives in a town just south of Los Angeles.

A 3-D-printed hand like the one Faith Lennox is wearing has many names: "super hero hand" or "robot hand."

It's pink, purple, and blue, and it’s made of the same type of plastic as Lego bricks. Faith said her friends at school think it’s really cool. "They want a robot hand, too,” she said.

Faith will be eight years old this year. Her arm was amputated when she was nine months old, said her mother, Nicole Lennox.

“When she was born, somehow the circulation to her left forearm got cut off causing something called compartment syndrome,” she said.

Free prosthetic hands

Through an online support group, Nicole Lennox heard about an organization called e-NABLE that uses 3-D printers to create free prosthetic hands for children around the world.

She also met Mark Lengsfeld, the owner of Build It Workspace, which does engineering and design work. He also has a few 3-D printers. Nicole Lennox asked if Lengsfeld could print her daughter a prosthetic hand. Lengsfeld said, “sure.”

“We just looked at it as 'Well, it’s printing a part. Why not?” If it’s a prosthetic hand or a bracket, it’s a part,” said Lengsfeld.

With the help of designs and instructions from the e-NABLE website, Lengsfeld printed the device part-by-part and assembled it for Faith.

“We hadn’t seen anything like this before. Wow, let’s try this and see what this is all about and also how we can help a little girl ride a bike ultimately," he said.

Mark Suarkeo specializes in making traditional prosthetic limbs. “3-D printing versus traditional can save a lot of time, a lot of hours, a lot of manpower,” said Suarkeo.

A traditional prosthesis can take one to two months to make and fit, and it costs thousands of dollars. On the other hand, a 3-D-printed hand takes as little as just a few days to print and assemble. e-NABLE says it can cost about $30.

Helping children

The organization makes and sends devices of different sizes to underdeveloped countries without 3-D printers - so local doctors can distribute them.

“With this type of technology, I believe that 3-D printing will enable these people to receive prosthetic devices and also change the way they live their lives and also change the way that they can provide for their families,” said Suarkeo.

Suarkeo said 3-D-printed hands are great for children, who outgrow them so quickly. In a Skype interview, e-NABLE’S John Wong said there also are psychological benefits.

“I myself was born missing fingers so I was teased and bullied when I was in school, so I know all too well what sort of issues children go through,” said Wong.

Nicole Lennox said she definitely has seen a change in her daughter with her robot hand. “It’s opened so many doors for her and just built so much confidence - just really, really touching.”

“I can hold onto my bike handle and sit nice and tall,” said Faith.

And if Faith outgrows or breaks a piece of her robot hand, she just has to print a new part.