With 3-D Printing, Affordable Prosthetics Are In Reach

Dan Carsen of WBHM reports how 3-D printers are changing manufacturing. They're cheap, and their results can be impressive. In Alabama, a team is working to create affordable prosthetics for kids.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Next, we're going to meet a little girl in Huntsville, Alabama. She was born without fingers on one hand. And now, thanks to 3D printing technology, she has an affordable prosthetic.

As Dan Carsen of member station WBHM reports, her story is one example of life-altering changes on the horizon.

DAN CARSEN, BYLINE: Kate Berkholtz is a smiley, active two-year-old who's happy to have a new tool that helps her pick things up. Right now, she's trying very hard to hold still before a gymnastics class. Can you tell me your name?

KATE BERKHOLTZ: Kate.

CARSEN: Do you like to run around and play here?

BERKHOLTZ: Yeah.

CARSEN: OK, go.

Those fast feet hit at hurdles for people who need or manufacture pediatric prosthetics. Kids are hard to keep still for fittings. They reject things. They lose things. Most consistently, they grow. And prosthetics made in traditional ways are expensive, says tech entrepreneur Jason Hundley.

JASON HUNDLEY: The barrier to entry is, you know, the cost for the normal industry - you're talking something that's in the five-figure range - talking like the price of a car. That's crazy, especially, you know, when it's going to not be useful in six months to a year.

CARSEN: Enter 3-D printing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINTING MACHINE)

CARSEN: This is the microwave oven-sized printer that made Kate's plastic hand. Since key patents expired several years ago, printers like it are much cheaper. Basic models are a few hundred dollars. Small businesses, researchers and regular people have them. That and expertise from Hundley's firm are why Kate has a working, affordable prosthetic. Here's Kate's mom, Jessica Berkholtz.

JESSICA BERKHOLTZ: This is huge for our family and for other families because it's not a commitment. It's not, you know, fighting with an insurance company or spending thousands of dollars on a prosthesis that your kid might not want or use. She loses one and it's not that big a deal. It's $5, and so I can call over to Jason and he can print us a new one for five bucks.

CARSEN: Jason Hundley's firm, Zero Point Frontiers, took on the project for free with the goal of sharing the design. Intern Shawn Betts did much of the work with help from company engineers and an online design archive called Thingiverse. Now that Betts has refined several prototypes, he says making a hand for Kate is easy.

SHAWN BETTS: A day or two to print one out and assemble it. You've got to print out all the parts and then just pop some pins in place and run some wires through it. But it's a very simple process.

CARSEN: Kate bends her wrist to pull those wires and plastic fingers grasp. The ease of 3-D printing means low-cost, low-risk and high adaptability. The plans can be scaled up as children grow or customized to fit unique limbs or even unique situations. Hundley plans to make a paddle when Kate learns to swim. But that's not all.

HUNDLEY: We've talked about modularizing it. You know, for lack of better term, like a Swiss Army knife. We're talking maybe just make a locked hand so she could ride a bike. And you could do that with the 3-D printing because my cost of printing those - the plastic on that is like sixty cents. Print it, see if it works. If it doesn't work, interchange it.

CARSEN: That's doable because there's no packaging, no shipping, no factory, and no paying engineers to find the cheapest way to make, say, 10,000 units to recoup all those costs. Again, Jason Hundley.

HUNDLEY: When you can get a fully automated, robotic, neuro-controlled prosthetic for $5, that'll be fun.

CARSEN: How far away is that?

HUNDLEY: Probably about 10 years.

CARSEN: Researchers have already connected sensors to nerves so people can feel through prosthetics. And some are gearing up to print organs. But right now, a simple plastic printed hand is making a little girl and her parents happy as she picks things up in ways she couldn't before. For NPR News, I'm Dan Carsen.

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