Consumer 3D printing began to be a thing in 2009 when the Stratasys patent for Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) expired and entered the public domain. Since the early days of 3D printing tiny dinosaurs and toys, consumer 3D printing developed rapidly. Commercially 3D printed prosthetics and engineered organs began to appear in the 1990s. Today anyone can access open-source databases to download models for 3D prosthetics, a major advance in less than one decade. We’ve written about 3D printed superhero prosthetics for children (and adult Iron Man wannabes), 3D printed tissues to speed bone healing, and affordable 3D printed bionic arms. A quick search for “3D printed prosthetics” in Health Tech Insider’s article database turned up 3D printed marvels ranging from a thumb, a jaw, and a leg with a fin that assists swimming.

Students and faculty at Virginia Tech (VT) recently advanced the development of 3D-printed prosthetics with their work on integrating electronic sensors with personalized prosthetics via conformal 3D printing. Conformal printing involves printing into a form-fitted cavity; in the VT work the cavity was made from a mold of a teenager’s wrist and hand. Using previously scanned 3D data from scans of the teenager’s limb, the VT 3D printing process included guided placement of sensors in the prosthetic during printing. By combining 3D scanning and 3D conformal printing, the team hopes to advance design and manufacturing technologies for 3D prosthetics. The goal is prosthetics that are functional, comfortable, and less expensive than adding sensors after a prosthetic is printed.

The VT research team 3D printed a bionic hand for the 12-year old daughter of a member of the VT community. Her hand stopped development in utero due to blocked blood flow. Next steps in the work include improving fit and comfort and exploring additional techniques to improve wearable bionics.