Fake limbs created with 3D printing technology could soon provide a cheap alternative to prosthetics — and they’re even dishwasher safe.
California-based company Bespoke Innovations is using 3D printers to create personalised artificial limbs, much like the “bespoke” suits that were custom tailored for the individual in the past. Limbs cost around $5300 to print, making them significantly cheaper than conventional medical options.
Scott Summit, one of the co-founders of Bespoke Innovations, believes prosthetic limbs should be a personal product and take into account the shape of the body, which varies greatly between individuals. “The main thing is that if you’re going to design something for the human body, mass production is only”¦ part of the way there.”
Large-scale production of artificial limbs has been a limited process until now, using a robotic cutter that does not properly delineate the shape of the limb, says Summit.
The 3D printing process used by Bespoke enables the fairings, or limb structures, to become solid realities from models designed using specialist software. The printing process builds successive layers of materials on top of each other to create the product. The result is identical numbers to mass production, but catering to individual tastes.
Bespoke Innovations aim to use personalisation to make people whole again. Summit wants people to be able to have a choice in the look and design of their limbs, not just see the prosthetic as a tool for walking. As a result, most of the process of the creating the limbs takes place during an interview between the designer and the customer.
It’s not a “one size fits all” process. For each client, the clothes they wear, the car they drive, their shoes, their watch and their personality is taken into account and incorporated this into the final design. “If somebody has a tattoo, it’s very easy to add the tattoo into the design of the product.”
The fairings are “unapologetically man-made.” Customers can choose to have their artificial limbs encased in leather, metal, the reflective materials from running shoes, chrome or other types of flexible materials, depending on taste. “You name it; anything you find in the fashion world is in our palette.”
So how long do they last? The durability of the fairing depends on the person, says Summit. He likens it to buying a new pair of shoes. Some people will take a lot of care with them; others will use them until they fall apart. Previous customers have solved this problem by having multiple fairings for different uses, for example one for partying and another for working in the garden.
When it comes to cleaning, the owners “have to think of it in a sense as clothing”. The limbs have to be treated for their component parts; the metals can be buffed, but leather has to be treated like leather and cleaned respectively. Some plastic components are even dishwasher-safe, although Summit admits this is not a method everyone is comfortable with. “It is very strange to open the dishwasher and see body parts.”
It’s gratifying to give people ownership over the look and feel of their body, says Summit, and he feels a sense of honour at giving people back their wholeness. “When we do put legs on people, which is fairly common now, it completely changes someone’s life. It’s a really strange thing to contribute at that level of a person’s life.