How 3D printing has changed the world of prosthetic limbs forever

When he was 13 years old, the age at which adolescents are entering their most awkwardly self-conscious teenage years, Christophe Debard had his leg amputated. Just a couple of years earlier, he had been a regular kid. Then came the cancer diagnosis at 12 and, about a year after that, the life-altering surgery to remove his right leg at the knee.

He was kitted out with a prosthesis and, although it fulfilled its role well in terms of helping him to move, that was only a small part of the solution. “When you are a teenager, it is not that easy to cope with the way people look at you,” Debard told Digital Trends. “Often people feel sorry for you.”

An incident such as this, unimaginable to most of us, is bound to be formative. Debard, however, did not let it define him — at least not in any negative way. Instead, it sparked an interest in rethinking prosthetics; not to hide them from sight by pretending that they’re not there, but to reimagine them as works of art in their own right. This triggered an interest in 3D printing, which makes all kinds of once-unthinkable design innovations not only possible, but affordable too.

christophe debard print my leg

Debard’s experiences eventually led to him creating a startup “Print My Leg,” which provides open-source blueprints for others who want to follow in his path. They allow others to create decorative prosthesis leg-pieces that they can make an extension of their own personalities: no different to getting a tattoo sleeve or choosing clothes that capture some aspect of your personality.

“When I wore my first open-source aesthetic — illuminated with a swoosh of Lumilor electroluminescent paint that created a glowing, eye-catching aesthetic — I noticed that kids began to approach me with a warm curiosity, rather than fear and discomfort,” Debard continued. “This is how it should be for all amputees, but still today most prosthetic devices are manually fabricated and costly.”

“Christophe Debard’s mission is to change the way people look at disabilities,” Lee Dockstader, director of Vertical Market Development at HP, whose Multi Jet Fusion technology plays a key role in the Print My Leg initiative, told Digital Trends. “Through his project, he’s creating an opportunity for creativity and personal expression of amputees through prosthetic covers, making them proud to wear and show them.”

Not the only project out there

Print My Leg is a great project. Fortunately, it’s not the only initiative in the world that’s seeking to do similar work.

3D printing has opened up new opportunities for prosthetics, and philanthropic organizations have been happy to support their development. Many of these initiatives have focused on children, the age Debard was when he lost his leg. 3D printing can be especially useful here, since children’s rapid growth means that they can quickly outgrow traditional prostheses. As a result, it’s necessary to replace them with a larger size version every couple of years. The lower costs associated with 3D printing make this a far better suited construction option.

The Cyborg Beast design files are available to download online under the Creative Commons license, meaning that anyone may create their own.

One example of a brilliant child-focused 3D printed prosthesis project is the wonderfully named Cyborg Beast. Founded by a Jorge Zuniga and his research group at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, Cyborg Beast focuses predominantly on hands and arm prostheses for kids, with the same philosophy concerning attention-grabbing bright colors that animates Print My Leg. The Cyborg Beast design files are available to download online under the Creative Commons license, meaning that anyone may create their own. To date, it has been downloaded tens of thousands of times and is worn by hundreds of people around the globe.

Limbitless Solutions

Perhaps the highest profile project in this vein is Limbitless Solutions, a group that’s run out of the University of Central Florida by Albert Manero. Working with a team of engineering students, Limbitless Solutions creates 3D printed personalized bionics and prosthetic partial arms for kids with limb differences. Next to conventional electronic prosthetics, which cost tens of thousands of dollars, Limbitless’ creations cost only around $350 to create. (They can also be made available for free for those who need them, due to online donations.)

Having attracted high profile supporters including actor Robert Downey Jr. (who handed out an Iron Man-inspired prosthetic to a 7-year-old boy in 2015), the non-profit has created a wide range of pop culture prostheses inspired by everything from movies to video games.

“We started with a very simple prosthetic arm that could just open and close,” Limbitless Solutions’ director of production Dominique Courbin told Digital Trends when he appeared on our Digital Trends Live show late last year. “But due to popular demand and our own interest in improving the prosthetic, we began to create prosthetics that could create individual finger movement. But that created a very difficult technical problem for us to solve.”

In terms of motivation for the project, Courbin added that, “We always wanted to help empower the kids and enable them to reflect how awesome and heroic they are internally — and wear them on their sleeve.”

The golden age of prostheses?

Here in 2019, we may be entering a golden age for such 3D-printed prostheses. Technological breakthroughs open up the possibilities of printing with more materials than ever. No longer just plastic, it’s now possible to 3D print with just about any material imaginable, including hard metals like titanium. 3D printers are available in more places than ever as well; introducing open-source projects like Print My Leg to whole new audiences. Finally, breakthroughs in fine robot manipulation will make prostheses more capable, while new ways of carrying out three-dimensional scanning will make measuring and fitting them more accessible.

Breakthroughs in fine robot manipulation will make prostheses more capable.

“Continued improvements in application focused 3D scanning, prosthetic device software and end to end ordering systems that will help drive further adoption,” said Lee Dockstader at HP.

As for Christophe Debard, he sees this as just the start of the journey. “My goal is to make this customization process more widely accessible,” he said. “I would like to federate more people around this kind of altruistic project to create more design and to ease the process of making an aesthetic. For that reason, I am in the process in collaborating with e-NABLE, a movement and global network of volunteers who are using their 3D printers, design skills and personal time to create free 3D-printed upper-limb prosthetics for those in need — particularly in underserved communities.”

The next phase of the mission? To expand far beyond the relatively small number of people who currently have access to these tools. “At a global scope, I really hope to see more enablers come up with solutions to democratize the access to high quality prostheses and prosthetic devices,” he said.

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