Custom Prosthetics Are As Easy As Pressing ‘Print’ [Future Of Health]

Custom Prosthetics Are As Easy As Pressing ‘Print’ [Future Of Health]

Doctors are taking advantage of 3D printing technology to build custom replacements for their patients.

  • 14 march 2014

What if you could print a replacement limb with the click of a button, one that would be perfectly suited and designed specifically for you? While the process isn’t instantaneous yet, doctors, engineers, and medical researchers have been working on new way to use 3D printers to create new, custom fit prostheses. Not only will these devices fit better and will be overall more durable, but are also cheaper to make and repair due to the relatively inexpensive nature of 3D printing.

This process of designing and printing prosthetics of both organic and inorganic materials is part of the Future of Health trend called Printed Procedures, which looks at how 3D printers are evolving to help doctors design creative medical solutions and patients heal faster. Continue reading below to understand how these devices are already being used inside the operating room.

Bionic Ear

Replacing an entire body part can be difficult, especially one as small and intricate as the human ear. Researchers at Princeton University have discovered a way to not ply replicate a functional ear, but to create one that hears better. The prothesis is created with 3D-printed cells and nanoparticles in the shape and comparable texture of a cartilage-created ear. For the listening apparatus, a small coil antenna with cartilage is placed in the prosthetic ear and is then connected to the patient’s nerve endings. In that way, the patient has stronger hearing than before without an easily noticeable hard plastic exterior. This also makes the ear more durable to wear and tear, as it is more flexible and won’t chip or crack, and more comfortable for the patient. In fact, the prosthesis is also exactly of the style and feel of a real ear, meaning the time necessary for the patient to adjust would be minimized. While there is no way to reconstruct larger body parts using this technique yet, this printing method will help millions.


Prosthetic hands often have limited mobility, or those that do are beyond the budget of most families. Handie is a prosthesis with extended mobility created almost entirely of 3D printed parts, meaning each one can be customized in size and design for each individual patient. The hand is also easily and cheaply repairable, maintenance of the device is easily sustainable. The hand includes technology so users can sync it with their mobile phone. The companion app can utilized from any smartphone, allowing for increased connectivity and tracking. The device may also inspired other researchers and engineers to design their own 3D printed robotic prosthetics. The current price of the Handie is just under $400 per hand, a steal compared to the $11,000 price tag of a similar model.

spinal disk regeneration

The spine is one of the most intricate parts of the body, as the highway for the nervous system to connect to the brain. Spinal damage can have a number of effects on a person, including partial or full paralyzation. As a person ages, their spinal discs begin to degenerate, and for about 30 million Americans, this causes an incredible amount of pain from Degenerative Disc Disease. Researchers at Cornell University have discovered a method of printing replacement discs from stem cells to heal their patients. Before the surgery, the printer compiled  strings of stem cells into the specific proportions of a patient’s spinal disc. During the procedure, the disc is then placed in the appropriate location in the spinal column. The stem cells then begin to enact a pre-designed ‘biological programming’ that replicates new spinal disc tissue for the following two weeks. This type of surgery is highly specialized for each patient and could be used in the future to treat spinal disc injuries or malformations.

With the help of our partner Boehringer Ingelheim, PSFK Labs has released the latest Future of Health Report, which highlights the four major themes and 13 emerging trends shaping the evolving global landscape of healthcare. To see more insights and thoughts on the Future of Health visit the PSFK page.

Contributed by Sara Roncero-Menendez

Photos: PrincetonJames Dyson Awards, and Cornell


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