Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

3D Printing: A New Competitor in the Prosthetics Market?

By Charles PatonPublished November 9, 2014

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3D printing is the process by which a three-dimensional digital model is transformed into a physical object through the repetitive layering of thin materials. Recently, innovators have started applying 3D printing to the prosthetic limbs market as a cost-effective alternative to their commercial counterparts. Barring rigorous FDA regulation, this provides a foundation for 3D printing in the artificial development of internal organs.
By Charles Paton, 11/9/2014

According to the Amputee Coalition of America, roughly 2 million people living in the United States have lost one of their limbs. They estimate that 185,000 people lose a limb each year. Historically, these individuals could either purchase a commercial prosthetic limb or live without. Although the former option seems most appealing, FDA-approved prosthetic limbs cost around $40,000, well out of the price range for most Americans. Recently, however, innovators have started using 3D printing machines to design prosthetic hands at low cost. Ranging from 10-50 dollars, these new products fit into almost any budget and perform many of the same functions as their commercial counterparts. In addition to large reductions in healthcare spending, 3D printing could play an even larger role in the micro-allocation of organs.

The idea for using 3D printing to develop prosthetic hands was introduced by Jon Schull about a year ago. His goal was to bring prosthetic hands to average people. Although he encountered a sluggish start, he eventually created a group that connects individuals with designs for prosthetics with individuals who have 3D printing capabilities. This group, called e-Nable (pronounced "enable"), seeks a largely unprecedented goal in the healthcare industry. Whereas most firms develop profit-oriented strategic plans, e-Nable seeks to eradicate financial barriers to prosthetic limbs by uniting individuals with a common goal. Despite criticism at the start, the company has proliferated in popularity, developing its own website as well as a strong following on its social media web pages.

From a technology standpoint, one of the more important aspects of the breakthrough is the novel application of 3D printing to health-related commodities. 3D printing of prosthetic hands could set the stage for printing of more important bodily structures, such as organs. In the case of the liver, the technology might help vanquish the long wait times generally associated with the lack of willing donors, thereby reducing the number of people that die on the "list." It is also important to recognize the affordability of 3D printing. As a country that is already struggling with reducing healthcare spending, the United States could greatly benefit from the cost-saving aspects of the technology. The competition presented by 3D printing in health commodities will force other firms to lower their prices in order to maintain market share, creating even more opportunities for cost reduction.

Although advocates are generally optimistic about current progress, some have mentioned concern regarding overregulation of the technology's relatively new role in the health industry. The historical dominance of the FDA in the health care industry leads some to believe that regulation of the technology is inevitable. Lengthy approval periods or stringent standards and restrictions could place tremendous time and financial burdens on current producers. Although the direct impact would be on prosthetic hands, future developments may never be realized as a result of the allocation of time and resources toward meeting requirements rather than researching new ideas.