While 3D-printing technology can benefit the prosthetist industry, not just anyone with a 3D printer can mass produce cheap prosthesis
If you acquire a 3D printer and want to take your new toy for a test run, printing a prosthesis and splashing your attempts all over social media seems to be the latest project of choice.
I’m well informed, so please trust me if I tell you, you are really not the only or the first person to think of this idea! Let’s put this into perspective. The new Mercedes-Benz C-Class has a printed steering wheel, while the armrest of the latest Quickie wheelchair is printed!
Why would you want a printed version of a trusted product that has evolved and been tried and tested through centuries?
“To save time,” I hear from the engineer sitting across from me, “I can scan and print a prosthetic socket within 24 hours.”
“That’s great,” I reply. “I can cast and manufacture a fully adjustable transparent prosthetic test socket within three hours.”
The selling point for another clever chap was, “You can reap all the benefits of computer-aided design (CAD)”. But prosthetists have been using CAD design technology for more than 30 years.
“You can design and print a fully adjustable final socket,” claims the rocket scientist with a little knowledge of stump shrinkage. Well, over many years, socket comfort has been a billion-euro industry; you certainly won’t make an impression on this kind of research and development with only a fancy printer.
The same principles apply to prosthetic components. The world’s biggest names in prosthetic design and technology have not come up with anything resembling 3D printing. This should tell you something. Rehabilitating a traumatised amputee requires knowledge of their condition, anatomy, skin conditions, biomechanics, psychology, material technology and structural integrity, and meaningful integration with a multidisciplinary team consisting of other medical professionals.
Then there is the fine print. It involves many elements: product and treatment liability, infringement on scope of practice, malpractice insurance, touting, supercession, the Competitions Board, the Consumer Protection Act, Health Professions Council and code of conduct.
Information technology specialists and others, please bear this in mind before you post to social media that you are going to print cheap technologically advanced legs for the masses. You have no idea of the harm that you could inflict in the life of a patient, and the deep water you can get yourself into.
Not even something as popular or as simple as a cellphone cover is printed for mass production. It’s too expensive and is just not practical. The same applies to the Mercedes-Benz steering wheel, the wheelchair armrest and the artificial limb. It is all possible but not practical.
Having said this, we are currently involved in the printing of a fully functional titanium prosthetic work of art. What an exciting project! But it is very time-consuming and very costly and in all fairness, it could not have been done without the full commitment and cooperation of the prosthetist.
Your committed prosthetist will mix a little bit of his soul into the manufacturing of your new body part. Do not confuse 3D printing on Facebook or Dr Google with your prosthetist’s medical degree. Not everything in this life can be created by the pushing of a button…
Heinrich Grimsehl is a prosthetist in private practice and a member of the South African Orthotic and Prosthetic Association (SAOPA). email: email@example.com