Attitudes towards prosthetics can be pretty varied. When I think of an artificial limb, I usually just imagine flesh-coloured plastic and metal. It still allows for physical activity but it’s very basic in appearance. Former marine, Andy Grant, lost his leg while serving in Afghanistan. His relationship with his prosthetic couldn’t be more positive. “If someone offered me my leg back now I wouldn’t take it. I’m the luckiest guy in the world and I get to do amazing challenges”. He runs marathons and triathlons. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for everyone. According to a journal, online body image and psychosocial well-being are issues that come into play with amputees.
With new technology, could relationships become even better between amputees and prosthetics? Could improved technology make everyday activities easier?
One of these new technologies is 3D Printing. This is a modernised approach of producing artificial limbs. Having carried out some research on this topic, I’ve been looking at the various benefits. I’ve seen how it’s improved quality of life for amputees. It’s helped restore normality, it’s less time-consuming and more simplistic. Overall, I think it will help many individuals feel they have regained some control after the trauma of losing a limb.
Many old-school prosthetics are basic in design, mainly comprised of metal rods and wires. Is this interesting for children? An alien object is attached to them and they feel they have to hide it. The basic limb has no personalisation to it. It would look and feel odd, not to mention it would deviate from the inclusivity amputee children should have. A dinosaur or monster arm would be much more appealing. It would feed imagination and kids can proudly show them to friends at school.
This is where 3D Printing, or Additive Manufacturing, can work. The process involves a design from a digital file being broken down into thousands of minuscule pieces. The machine then recreates it layer by layer from the bottom upwards. With this mode of production, there’s free reign for personalisation. Instead of having a limb made in a factory, it can be designed and amended any time in the comfort of your own home. The prosthetic will be entirely unique. The creation is your own from a computer, there for you to modify. If I wanted to make a prosthetic for my niece, for example, I could add spikes or scales to mimic a reptilian creature in her favourite colours. I could even get her involved. A man from Anglesey actually became a hero after utilising 3D Printing to help his son:
Ben Ryan’s son, Sol, was ten days old when he developed a severe blood clot in his arm. There was no choice but to amputate under the elbow. Being under a year old, the NHS was unable to offer a prosthetic for Sol until he was to reach that age. Ben decided to take matters into his own hands and created a bionic arm for his son. He used Xbox accessories and a 3D Printer to do this. The Xbox Kinnect scanner was plugged into the printer. Sol now has a hydraulic arm. The way this works is that rubber sacks filled with water are placed on pressure points over the body. This could be in the shoe for example. Sol can now operate his limb through this pressure. He has total control, he can operate the thumb by grasping because of the water bulb system. It’s now also a plaything for him with a cool, superhero-like appearance. It’s sturdy enough to lean on and survives tantrums.
After turning his creation into a successful business called Ambionics, Ben has explained the awesomeness of 3D Printing. He has stated “Each arm created is customised to the user from a 3D scan of their limb. When making comparisons between 3D Printing and commercialised production, parents can be confident they’re choosing the right method for their children. Ben states “The NHS takes eleven weeks to convert the plaster cast of an arm into a wearable prosthetic. Ambionics can produce one in less than five days.”
In the future, 3D prosthetics will be made with multi-materials so natural sockets can better fit with the body. Lightweight titanium is one of them. This will make the limb sturdy and durable. So this would be a great option for any exercise enthusiasts. There could also be an introduction of ‘predictive movement’ with sensors doing the work for the individual.
With the traditional way of making prosthetics, there is the problem of children outgrowing them as they develop. This is costly for parents as they’ll need to keep paying manufacturing costs to keep up. With Ben’s approach, there is a solution to this. He keeps the scans on file ready for replacements, should they be needed. Anyone with access to the same equipment as Ben can also prepare for this issue. I now know that with my Xbox, I have the power to aid the making of a bionic limb. With great power comes great responsibility.
We know the advantages of Additive Manufacturing and why it makes sense. But, there is the cost to think of when owning a machine. You would have to repeatedly buy materials, and it would depend on what they are with some costing more than others. Materials such as carbon fibre mix or conductive filament are expensive. The latter can cost up to £70.00 for a 100g reel. If you’re just aiming for a plastic-producing 3D printer, then this will be irrelevant.
Making Prosthetics Possible
It’s still more inexpensive than a factory-made prosthetic. For the latter, you’d be paying between £5,000 and £50,000. This is not practical for a child amputee. They’ll continue to outgrow artificial limbs. So surely it would make sense to self-print. According to a BBC report, a plastic-producing 3D printer can be yours for a “few hundred pounds”. It’s more of a reality for families at this lower price range. We’re savvy enough with technology to handle this kind of contraption. Installing the facilities in the lounge shouldn’t be a problem. I think opinions on prosthetics can be improved if families know they’re more attainable. They can be in charge of constructing the object from beginning to end.
Referring back to my previous comment on basic prosthetics, I’ve observed designs are becoming increasingly mechanised. The Ottobock Clinic in Minworth, Birmingham creates their artificial limbs with the idea that vigorous exercise is still possible. Gemma is the perfect example of this:
At the age of fourteen, she was involved in a road accident. Her leg was injured as a result. The damage was so severe, she needed an amputation above the knee. She now has a ‘C-Leg’ from the clinic. More than ‘70,000 fittings’ of this type have been carried out. The limb contains sensors which detect insecure positions. Gemma can now use less energy standing up. She can relax with her knee slightly flexed, something that could be more difficult with a traditional, basic model. She can also put weight on it with no worry of discomfort. The object adapts for exercising as well. Gemma explains “My C-Leg enables me to do star jumps, squats and lunges. Plus, I am able to easily play with my son and can flexibly kneel down.”
Some people may argue technology isn’t always reliable. The sensors in the device could stop communicating for instance. If this was to happen the limb would be stripped of its bionic capability. It ceases to be robotic. It just becomes any other prosthetic, with technology dormant in the body. The device could also perceive multiple signals simultaneously and movements could be confused. This would be somewhat frustrating for an amputee.
With the quality of this particular limb, I think it would be very unlikely. The design is highly useful for someone like Gemma, a mother and exercise enthusiast. Her attitude towards it is positive because normality is still possible. She can still kneel down to tie her son’s shoelaces. Workouts can still be done and because of the sensors, can even be enhanced.
It’s clear Sol and Gemma both have good relationships with their prosthetics. They can continue as normal. They both have control and ease of use, which I think is important for any amputee. Sol can operate his limb with the slightest pressure. It’s a toy he can manipulate and a familiar part of his life. Gemma can perform any movement with hers, however strenuous. Technology has created inclusion with more affordable prosthetics. Sometimes we focus on the technology and forget the human impact. Understanding the stories behind the headlines is where enlightenment lies. I look forward to telling more stories of causes and people behind the causes.
Written by: Kate Dodwell
Need help communicating your social issue? At That’s All Media, we help brands, causes and people raise awareness of important social issues by producing high quality visual, written and voice (i.e. podcasts, voice-overs) content creation. We also enjoy social media management and long-term communications projects. For more on this contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to write for us? Contact email@example.com and get in touch.
Follow us on: