Prosthetics for Kids Underscore 3D Printing's Limitless Potential

MakerBot aided a 3D printing project that resulted in affordable prosthetics—a latest example of the fast-growing market's vast potential.

The 3D printing market is expected to see sales reach $8.4 billion in 2025, up from $777 million in 2012, according to an April report from Lux Research, which expects the automotive, aerospace and medical industries to comprise an 84 percent share of the market.

But as the technology and its capabilities are more deeply considered and made available to small businesses and even consumers—Staples on May 3 became the first U.S. retailer to sell a 3D printer, the Cube 3D Printer—the potential of the technology and the markets it can impact seem endless.

As President Obama said during his most recent State of the Union address, 3D printing "revolutionizes the way we make everything."

MakerBot, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based 3D printing company, shared in a May 8 statement an example of a collaboration, and an innovation, that its Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer made possible.

The company shipped desktop printers to woodworker Richard Van As, in South Africa, and Ivan Owen, a theatrical prop designer in Seattle, who specializes in hands, after it learned that the two were collaborating on creating substitute fingers for Van As, who had lost four of his in a 2011 woodworking accident. Van As had reached out to Owen after discovering that traditional prosthetics could cost as much as $10,000 per finger.

The two collaborated on digital files that they sent back and forth, perfecting their design, and with the MakerBot printers were able to reduce the time between each prototype from several days to 20 minutes.

The solution, Robohand, relies on the motion of one's wrist to open and close the hand's fingers.

After Van As posted about Robohand on Facebook, he quickly found a new audience for it—children with Amniotic Band Syndrome, a condition within the womb that causes children to be born without extremities, especially fingers and toes.

It's not uncommon for children with ABS to go without prosthetics, as they're not only prohibitively expensive to purchase once but need to be replaced as a child grows.

Several families reached out to Van As, who printed out Robohands for the kids and, with the help of an occupational therapist, fit them individually to the kids.

Van As and Owen have since posted the Robohand Project to Makerbot's Thingiverse site, where others can download the design. Van As believes that anyone "who applies their mind to it" can print out and fit the Robohand themselves, even without the help of an occupational therapist, if necessary.

The printer creates all of the parts except the cabling, the hardware (stainless steel screws, etc.) and a piece of "thermoplastic" that one dips into hot water to soften it and then shapes to the Robohand user's forearm.

One little boy who Van As fitted with a Robohand in January has already grown enough to need a larger replacement.

According to MakerBot, "All of the Robohand parts that are made on the MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer add up to roughly several dollars ($2.50) in material costs and the total cost is around $150."

Lux Research says the medical 3D printing market is "in its infancy," but expects it to rise from 2012's $11 million to $1.9 billion in 2025.

Consumer applications, it added, are expected to remain modest, relative to industrial growth, with jewelry makers, hobbyists and artists growing the consumer space to likely $894 million in sales in 2025.