Jun 1, 2015 | By Simon

Among all of the 3D printing-related ‘feel-good’ stories we’ve been hearing about over the past few years, few are as heartwarming as those that involve the design and fabrication of 3D printed prosthetic hands for young children.  While traditional prosthetic limbs can cost tens of thousands of dollars and need to be replaced as a child grows up, 3D printing allows for the creation of low-cost and functional prosthetics that can be easily customized as a child’s arm grows larger.  Additionally, the ability to create custom designs has led to many ‘character-inspired’ designs that make the prosthetic-wearing experience more enjoyable - such as Iron Man or Star Wars-themed prosthetics.  

Although the 3D printed prosthetics have proven to be popular in both the United States and the UK, they are still slowly picking up in other countries where the use of 3D printing is still in a relatively young stage - particularly in Eastern countries including China.  

Among those who have been the first to receive a 3D printed prosthetic in China is Xiao Cheng, a six-year-old who was recently fitted with a prosthetic hand after having lost his in a traffic accident when he was younger.  The hand, which was given to Cheng last week by a hospital in honor of the country's Children’s Day, costs significantly less than a traditional prosthetic hand and will be able to be replaced easily as Cheng’s arm grows.   

Because of the nature of Cheng’s injury - he had to have a part of his hand amputated and thus, lost most of the feeling in the rest of hand - any sort of a replacement would have cost much more than his family was capable of affording; both of Cheng’s parents have moved to larger cities to find work while Cheng is cared for by his elderly grandma who farms every day to support the family.  

After hearing about Cheng’s story, doctors at the Union Hospital in Wuhan - a city 130 miles away from Cheng's village - decided to help.  Using their expertise and 3D printers, the doctor’s created a prosthetic hand for Cheng that took just seven hours to complete.

Upon receiving the prosthetic hand this past week, Cheng was so overjoyed that he decided to name the hand his ‘Transformers’ hand inspired by the action film that features robots that can transform into different objects.  

Considering that a traditional prosthetic limb can cost around 100,000 Yuan (£10,500 / $16,000) - or twice the annual salary for the average Chinese worker in rural areas - it becomes clear just how much of a gift receiving the hand was for Cheng and his family; the 3D printed prosthetic cost just 1,000 Yuan to manufacture.  As if the story couldn’t be any more heartwarming, the hospital even promised to regularly replace the hand until Cheng reaches adulthood.

While Cheng’s story is certainly one of the more recent we’ve heard about, it is not the first time that a 3D printed prosthetic has been successfully created in China.

Back in September of 2012, a 5-year-old boy from the Guangdong province accidentally injured his right hand with a meat grinder and - similar to Cheng - was unable to recover feeling in his hand.  


After the surgery, Chinese doctor Xu Guisheng kept calling the little boy for a follow-up assessment and treatment in order to watch the young boy's post-operative recovery and growth. He found that the boy’s family had very limited funds and was unable to afford traditional prosthetics.

After discussing with colleagues, Xu Guisheng decided that he would create the boy a 3D printed prosthetic limb which would help him restore some function to his fingers.

After utilizing 3D scans of the boy’s wrist and hand, Guisheng was able to create a 3D model that would be able to be 3D printed into a functional prosthetic limb. It took less than 12 hours to complete the printing job.

Thankfully, the prosthetic worked perfectly for the young boy and he was able to regain some of the basic functions of his right hand, which included the ability to grasp soft and hard objects as well as control larger objects such as his bicycle handlebar.

Today, Xu Guisheng and a few partners have established a team that aids in creating custom 3D printed prosthetics for patients of all types.

"A medical revolution caused by 3D printing has begun,” said Wang Chentao, a professor of Digital Medical Engineering Research at Shanghai Jiaotong University.

“Compare to traditional manufacturing methods, the medical community has an innate kindness for 3D printing."

According to Xu Guisheng, he and the team are prepared to provide 3D printed limbs to the public as a community service project and will be giving them out for free. Additionally, he has been in talks with the country’s various welfare organizations to help pay for any costs for future 3D printed limbs that are created for those that are in-need, such as low-income and disabled patients.

"In the medical field, 3D printing technology has a very big market space.” Xu Guisheng added. "We have applied for several patents using 3D printing in the medical field. Artificial limbs are just one of the areas we applied and we are not relying on them to make a profit."

One potential hurdle that Guisheng sees is regulations surrounding Chinese medical devices; according to current Chinese medical regulations, the implantation of human organs or tissues has a difficult approval process.

"In accordance with existing regulations, the use of 3D printed prosthetic limbs is questionable because the production technologies are different than traditional manufacturing techniques." Xu Guisheng said.

However, Wang Chunren, a food and drug inspection researcher noted that the use of 3D printing material for medical use is different than what the medical regulations are referring to; because there are no mechanical properties or internal structure, the standards do not apply.

With the rise of 3D printing in general in China, it might not be too long from now where we see an entire 3D printed prosthetic revolution similar to what we’ve seen in the United States and the United Kingdom.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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