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March 3, 2015

3D Printing: Incredible Potential For Medical Device Makers

Posted by Suryaprakash K. (View Profile | View All Posts) at 8:53 AM

Girl gets 3D-printed prosthetic hand - BBC News [Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KK25aLLhDk0]

When you mention robotics to the average consumer, it conjures up images of really cool figurines strutting around the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and greeting you with a smile. Or if the person is in the manufacturing sector, they no doubt think of the many robotic welding arms along an assembly line in, say, an automotive plant.

But what happens when you bring together a graduate student in aerospace engineering and another in neuroscience? You get robotics prototypes that could very well be profound game-changers for people who are missing limbs. Especially patients in the developing world, where such advanced prosthetics can be prohibitively expensive.

I am following with interest a project at the University of Illinois in America where two such graduate students have combined their talents to produce via 3D printing what is officially known as an "open-source, dexterous artificial hand." That's a fancy way of saying that these ingenious and innovative students could very well be breaking a significant barrier to outfitting the world with prosthetics that are not only economically feasible (because they can be customized and rapidly produced on a 3D printer) but also technologically advanced.

Up until recently, people who were missing an arm or hand used the same kind of strap-on prosthesis with a clasping hook that has been widely used for more than a century. Such technology came out of World War I in 1918 and we're largely still using it today! Part of the reason was that there just aren't enough people missing arms and hands to create a booming market which in turn encourages entrepreneurship and innovation. In the United States alone, the number of people missing arms is only in the hundreds of thousands. Compare that to the number of people missing legs - they number in the millions - and you can see (economically, at least) why progress on leg prosthetics has vastly outpaced work with hands and arms.

But that's all changing, partly thanks to the students in Illinois. They're using machine-learning algorithms to essentially train the 3D-printed hand to move using electromyography (EMG). That means they replicate human motions by taking the electrical signal from muscles in the arm and sending it to an EMG board. Then they send the signals to a microprocessor outfitted with a machine-learning algorithm. From there the signals become commands to a small motor that results in hand movement that's amazingly similar to the real thing.

Here's where things get even more exciting: The EMG board they currently use is about the size of a audio mixing board the likes of what you'd find in a recording studio. The students think they can shrink that board so that it can fit within the prosthetic limb itself. That's when everything will be self-contained and mobile, which is vital to the project's success for those wearing the 3D printer-generated hands.

I am impressed by the students' drive and energy. They produced the arm for an amputee in Ecuador. The point here is that because the project is based on open source software, enterprises around the world can use the technology to create their own models. Think of all the potential that medical device manufacturers will soon have to create customized limbs for consumers anywhere, anytime with the use of a 3D printer.

We hear a lot about the promise of digital integration these days. Surely the Internet of Things is evolving into a massive, multi-billion-dollar market for sophisticated consumers in the West who want to connect their cars to their home thermostats and even the coffeemakers on their kitchen counters.

But digital integration is going to mean so much more for the improvement of the lives of millions of people across the developing world as well. The 3D-printed hand, for instance, took just 30 hours to print and only two hours to assemble. Imagine how a medical device manufacturer will cut down that overall production time when there is an actual global market for such limbs -- which will be very soon!

When asked about the vast potential of the project, one of the students said: "It's really awesome to be able to help people. I didn't imagine doing something that has this direct impact on the world while still in college." Attention, all you medical device manufacturers: Have you made job offers to these students for when they graduate?

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