Printable Prosthetics

Hi everyone,

This is my final project for 391A. Enjoy!

The Iron Man Arm

Like a large portion of the population, I am a very big fan of Marvel’s Avengers enterprise so when I saw this video of Robert Downey Jr. presenting an Iron Man themed prosthetic to a young boy named Alex who was born with a partial right arm, I was immediately intrigued.

(Click HERE to see the video)

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 10.17.07 PM

Still from Iron Man video.

The premise of printing prosthetics is amazing and so, of course, I immediately turned to Google (well, Bing) to find out more.

The Homemade Hand

The first thing I found was actually a news story literally very close to home. The video and article told the story of a Massachusetts man who followed a set of instructions he found on the internet and used them to print a 3D hand for his son who’s own hand was born under-developed. CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley begins the newscast with a commendation of the creativity involved in the project with a quote from Walt Disney:

“Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive.”

3D printing is not only a way to bring to life objects from the past, but also objects of the future. It is an affordable method of creation that allows an idea to become tangible reality. Affordability is the watchword in this situation, acting as the driving force behind the innovation of these prosthetics. Traditional prosthetics are extremely expensive, requiring vast resources of time and financial means between specialist appointments, fittings, and the cost of the limb itself. Many amputees do not have these resources readily available, certainly not in the quantity required by the prosthetic process. 3D printing has the potential to really help alleviate some of this burden.

They are especially practical for use on children who will quickly outgrow a series of prosthetics. In the CBS newscast, Leon notes that as he outgrows his hand they can easily produce new ones that fit. The flexibility provided by 3D printing is also a huge point in favor of the further development of this process.

Making the Good Better

The article about the McCarthy father and son and the prosthetic hand is additionally wonderful because the father now plans to teach the students at his son’s school how to make the prosthetic hands so that they can make them for other children who need them.

This service mentality is already appearing on an even larger scale with many participants, as discussed by Forbes Tech contributor TJ McCue. Throughout the article, McCue focuses on a global initiative called e-Nable which is focused on “e-Nabling the future” by making prosthetics more widely available to those who cannot access them. The nonprofit company Limbitless Solutions is part of this initiative, creating prosthetic arms for children.

An Outlet for Artistry

Another case McCue discusses is about a woman from Nova Scotia. Natasha Long was in an accident that resulted in the loss of her leg. Artist took it upon herself to design a gorgeous filigree mask for Long’s prosthetic, resulting in this glorious work of art:


While such an artistic feat may be possible without 3D printing, it would probably be much more time consuming, difficult, and expensive than this 3D printed version is.

But Could You Really Just DIY?

Even for people who lack ready access to a 3D printer, there are solutions readily available. 3D printing is becoming a much more available thing with companies like Sculpteo, Shapeways, and even UPS getting on board. Sculpteo, for example, is a website that prints designs to order. On the site, you can upload your design, tweak it to your imagination, choose the material with which it will be made, and then submit it to be printed. Once it is manufactured, your product is shipped to you. The downside to using Sculpteo is that its focus is not on printing prosthetics, but rather on ideas of products that are being produced for a small business. Thus, the pricing is based on the materials used and the time to manufacture and therefore might be more costly than some other alternatives.

In a similar way, Shapeways business model is focused on providing a platform for people to create small businesses producing and selling products they design. Popular options are phone accessories, jewelry, and art pieces. This website is very much commercially centered around users selling their products rather than creating prosthetics. Small businesses are also the focus of UPS’s new business venture. They have recently installed 100 locations across the nation at which small businesses can print 3D equipment, prototypes, etc. Though Shapeways, UPS, and Sculpteo do not lend themselves overly much toward allowing the average person print a 3D prosthetic, the increasing prevalence of businesses that offer or are built around 3D printing are a hopeful indicator for the future.

Another alternative, perhaps a better alternative, is a website called 3D Hubs. This website directs you to a listing of the 3D printers that are within your area. The range in which these printers can be found is specified by you depending on how far you are willing to go. The website gives you the list of printers and when you select a printer, brings you to the user’s page where there is information about the printer (maker, model, etc) and customer reviews from prior user experience. As far as I can tell, this website is absolutely free and it only costs to print things. Based on everything I’ve found from this website so far, it seems to be a very feasible option for consideration.

Absolutely Yes.


As a UMass student, I have ready access to these wonderful tools called 3D printers, I took it upon myself to visit the Digital Media Lab on the 3rd floor of the W.E.B. Dubois Library at UMass Amherst with the blueprint files to a Snap-Together Robohand that I downloaded from Thingiverse. In essence, this model is the same as or at least very similar to the hand printed by McCarthy for his son. After a couple quick conversations with a nice supervisor named Chad, I left the library with the promise of a snap-together prosthetic hand. A couple days later, I picked up the pieces and started putting it together.

I have put my experiences in a blog for casual perusal: here.


The Snap-Together Robohand comes with a PDF instructional file with step-by-step instructions and color diagrams. The assembly of the printed parts was fairly straightforward, however, the elastic cord and the nylon string were problematic. The Hand works through a combination of tension from the string and tension from the elastic. The elastic that I purchased was a little too thin for this project and I think a couple of the elastic strings were overstretched, resulting in lost elasticity, though some of the fingers worked exactly the way they were supposed to. I also could not determine how exactly the hand was supposed to attach to the wrist in order to be functional. The end result was a prosthetic hand that worked questionably. I think with different elastic and maybe a few modifications, the hand might work as I thought it would, but as with the rest of the 3D prosthetic printing initiative, it is all still just a work in progress.

Thank you to Professor Poehler for sharing the original video.

One thought on “Printable Prosthetics

  1. Pingback: Making the Hand: a Snap-Together Robohand Experience | meilidzindolet

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