Prosthetic Limbs and 3D Printing – A short history, and Why CAD Jewellers Should Take Notice

"Oriental Leg with Secret Drawers", from the Alternative Limb Project
“Oriental Leg with Secret Drawers”, from the Alternative Limb Project

Since I started this blog and began following advances in 3D printing over the years, I’ve noticed the technology has affected different areas of product design in different ways. In some fields (such as ceramics), we are still awaiting the refinements 3D printing will require to really revolutionise their industry. But in other cases, the technology has quickly become indispensable, to the point where it has completely changed the face of the industry in the space of a few years. Perhaps none more so than prosthetic limbs.

Recently I wrote a research piece (the first of many for Jewellery Focus Magazine) summarising all the recent changes to the jewellery industry, discussing how CAD and 3D printing have radically changed the way bespoke jewellery design is made. The cost efficiencies introduced by working in CAD and producing production models with 3D printing has brought down the cost of producing bespoke jewellery something like 20 fold since the millennium. Because of this, 95% of all bespoke work undertaken by the UK jewellery industry involves CAD/CAM and 3D printing.

As impressive as that sounds, the price reduction granted by 3D printing for prosthetic limbs is even greater than that. And the consequences of this are life-changing.

A Quiet, But Life Changing Revolution

It has been several years in the making, but since about 2011 I have been following a quiet revolution in the way artificial limbs are produced.

Thanks to innovative design and resourceful application of 3D printed materials, the price of producing a functional artificial limb has dropped from costs in the tens of thousands to a few hundred pounds. The result has been incredibly dramatic and life changing.

3D printed hands can be manufactured cheaply and quickly enough to allow for rapid replacement of parts, allowing artificial hands to be practical even for small children, who’s hand and arm sizes are frequently changing.

What’s more, there have been multiple initiatives to take low-cost FDM 3D printers to Africa and Asia to produce artificial limbs for those in extreme poverty.

Open Bionics's lighter, cheaper 3D printed arm design also won the James Dyson Award.
Open Bionics’ lightweight, cheaper 3D printed arm design recently won the James Dyson Award.

On the higher end, using a combination of 3D scanning and 3D printing has allowed for the customisation of advanced artificial limbs to become affordable to an entirely new market. As we reported a couple of years ago, Bespoke Innovations creates custom made decorative farings for prosthetic limbs based upon 3D scanning and CAD design. More recently, Open Bionics has just completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to produce a new generation of bionic hand for mass manufacture.

From all this momentum has come even more leaps and bounds in research. The Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University is now experimenting with making a prosthetic hand which has functional nerve endings.

The Art of the Artificial Limb

A lady named Laura Vaughn developed her own version of Imperator Furiosa's artificial arm for Comic Con.
A lady named Laura Vaughn developed her own version of Imperator Furiosa’s artificial arm for Comic Con.

All these rapid advancements have also led to the growth of an unusual and new field of design—decorative prosthetics. Because of the increased affordability (and disposability) of prosthetic limbs, we are starting to see designers take chances with artificial limb design like never before. The results make for quite a fascinating challenge to the concepts of both disability and body art. In particular, Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s Alternative Limb Project and the burlesque performance art of Viktoria Modesta stand out as dramatic examples of this.

Even more compellingly, we’re already starting to see home users experiment with making their own decorative artificial limbs.

Why CAD Jewellery Designers Should Take Notice

It’s easy to forget that this explosion of prosthetic innovation has happened on the back of a technology which is still very young and developing. As both home and industrial 3D printers get ever more affordable and versatile, it’s not difficult to imagine the idea of prosthetic replacement parts becoming printable at home.

In a future like this, the idea of making decorative components for artificial limbs will likely become increasingly commonplace. People with limb replacements will choose their artificial limb decoration as freely as they would choose other wearable accessories. Since decorative ergonomics and creative bodywear have always sat within the field of wearable art and studio jewellery anyway, this leads me to predict that many art jewellers will be dabbling in artificial limb design in the future.

It’s an interesting possibility– in the future, not only will we be asked to design rings, but sometimes we’ll be asked to design the hands to wear them as well!

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