Aug 30, 2016 | By Nick

Artificial intelligence could design prosthetic limbs in the future, slashing costs and cutting the design time to just minutes.

With 3D printing, we can then potentially cut the process of producing a prosthetic arm, leg or hand from weeks to just hours. The costs will fall by a massive margin and we can give a better quality of life to millions of people around the world that simply cannot afford the prosthetics they need.

Janis Jatnieks gave a fascinating TED Talk on the subject at the recent TEDxRiga event. The CEO of points to a future where a 3D scanner can feed directly into an AI program and modify an existing prosthetic design. That app can then send the whole package to the nearest 3D printer and 3D scanning, design and fitting could be done within a day. It’s an enticing prospect.

Jatnieks offers a 3D printing service, for everything from iPhone cases to medical models and aerospace components. Two years ago a woman visited his company, though, and potentially changed the world.

She wanted a version of the e-NABLE Raptor hand for her son, so Jatnieks set to work. He immediately ran into problems scaling down the readily available versions of the hand he found online.

A usable prototype took tens of 3D prints to get right, which costs times and money. At the first fitting, the hand was so bad that Jatnieks freely admits he felt ashamed of his own work.

Generic designs, then, don’t really work. It took two weeks of custom design to make a hand that really did the job. It changed the child’s life in an instant.

Jatnieks could have rested on his laurels, but the whole experience left a lasting impression. He realized that people around the world need a hand, arm or leg and they just don’t have access to this level of service.

The Baltics3D boss reckons there are 2 million people that could feel the benefit of 3D-printed prosthetics in the US alone. Europe has another 4 million and globally there could be 50 million people that need a prosthetic device.

Jatnieks wanted a solution for everyone and that means that manual fittings, measurements and modeling had to fall by the wayside. 3D printed prosthetics can be made in days, rather than the weeks it took for traditional manufacturing. Now the bottleneck in the process and the most expensive part of the equation is the fitting.

There is a solution, which is simple in theory and yet exceptionally complex to achieve. Jatnieks was determined to replace the manual measurements with 3D scanning. This helped the team reduce the digital manipulation of the basic prosthetic hand to just two hours, the 3D printing took six hours and the whole process was done in a day. It still wasn’t enough.

The e-NABLE Community has 7000 members that delivered 1032 hands in 2015 and the organization is planning to double that this year. It has made its own strides to automate the design process, too, with low-cost solutions like the online Hand-o-Matic. The non-profit is doing great work, but it is simply overwhelmed by the amount of people that need help.

Peter Diamandis at Singularity University predicts there will be 5 billion internet connected smartphones in the world by 2020. At the same time, we should have 4 million 3D printers. So we will have the tools to 3D print the hands, legs and arms. We will also have the 3D scanners in our pocket.

The phones aren’t quite there yet and they need an additional camera, but soon we’ll be able to 3D scan a limb or hand in just one minute. So we just need to connect them to the 3D printers via a painful interim step.

Jatnieks has spent 18 months working with Artificial Intelligence software, specialist surgeons and 3D modelers to create a solution that takes the human being out of the loop. The end result of that arduous work is a program that can take a smartphone scan and turn it into a 3D printable design in just 15 minutes.

The team started with hands, but this process has already proven its worth producing a back support for Latvian Paralympic fencer Polina Rozkova. She took the design to Rio, so if the support breaks then she can walk in to any local 3D printing supplier in Brazil and have another within hours.

So we are on the cusp of a new age. In short order, people that need a prosthetic device can 3D scan the affected limb themselves and send the design to a local 3D print shop in New York, Namibia or Nepal. It will take hours, rather than weeks, and the non-profits can pour their time and resources into getting the prosthetics to people that need them.

This was a chance encounter, but there’s a real chance it is going to make this world a better place and give people in need a better quality of life.

It’s coming, and we can’t wait to see it.



Posted in 3D Design



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