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3D Printing and Prosthetic Advancement

The representation of basic human anatomy and physiology typically falls under a particular, global structure. At a very young age, we learn about our physical appearance, as well as the variety in physical characteristics represented by our peers and loved ones. We become familiar with our body - our senses, our eyes, our nose. Over time, we learn that humans grow hair, can grow to certain heights, and could present different eye and skin colors. School also taught us that we are capable of complex speech and language, can partake in many kinds of physical activities, and can perform actions that are quintessential to our survival. However, within our primary school education, we are also taught another aspect of ourselves: typically, we are expected to be born and live the entirety of our lives with two arms, two legs, ten fingers, and ten toes.

With this presented information, it makes sense that most children would believe that all humans have all of their limbs. When they turn on the television, they see cartoon characters, actors, and advertisements that represent people with intact appendages. When going to the grocery store or market with friends or family, many of the people that they see would also fall into the criteria that they were taught in school. Educational materials, especially ones that included images of people, also supported this black-and-white notion presented within societal contexts.

Nevertheless, this presents a problem. A topic in medicine that fails to fall under this criteria continues to struggle with gaining the awareness and representation that it truly deserves through our society: loss of limbs. In particular, this lack of awareness presents a large issue because it hinders the communities’ drive to support initiatives and advancements for this problem.

In the United States, many people are living their day-to-day lives with missing limbs. In particular, there are about 2 million individuals that fall under this criterion, many of which were caused by vascular disease, trauma, and cancer. The incidence of this particular circumstance is also notably shocking as well, with about 185,000 individuals in the United States undergoing some form of amputation per year.

Fortunately, in recent centuries, the rise in individuals in the United States living with one or more missing limbs has led to a revolution of prosthetic construction. In historical contexts, many of the first kinds of prosthetics were initially created with the idea to give the individual the illusion of the missing limb, hiding the condition rather than fully treating the problem. At the beginning of the 16th century, prosthetists started to implement hinged prosthetics, and other devices such as the “Anglesey Leg” (steel knee joint with catgut tendons) and the “Hanger Limb” (knee formulated from whittled barrel staves) continued to improve upon this founded discovery.

But what have these innovations led to? What kind of option do amputees and individuals with missing limbs have today?

Growing in masse popularity, many of these affected individuals have turned to prosthetic limbs created through 3D printing technology. With the first prosthetic limb created through 3D printing technology in 2008, this technology has utilized computer software as a way to articulate the overall prosthetic design, while simultaneously creating the object through an intricate layer-by-layer process.

The most affordable option of these artificial limbs, provided to the general public, are limbs in which are 3D printed with plastic material. However, there are no limitations for the materials that could be utilized for the development of this amazing innovation: fiberglass, aluminum, nylon, polylactic acid (PLA), resin, reinforced polyamide, expanded polyurethane, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), and molded silicone are some of the many other materials that could be incorporated as well. In 2021, the individual can have a selective choice between these materials depending on their overall budget/finances and the durability that they desire in their new appendage.

In terms of the printing technologies incorporated for the creation of these prosthetics, prosthetists have a rather small variety of choices to decide upon. Selective laser sintering (SLS), fused filament fabrication (FDM), and stereolithography (SLA) are three of the technologies that have been utilized for most of the prosthetic market products developed during this year, and until future technologies can effectively replace these options, these three appear to remain utilized within the near future.

Overall, 3D printed prosthetics have become an accessible and hopeful innovation that could allow amputees, as well as individuals with missing limbs to have a higher quality of life, with less worry about limitations. It will be worthwhile to support this technology, as many organizations continue to further the awareness of these technologies, as well as create opportunities for representation. One of the more notable organizations, the National Institutes of Health, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides awareness of e-NABLE, consisting of passionate volunteers that dedicate their free time to creating these prosthetic devices for communities with a lack of access to said innovations. Increasing the number of these programs and allowing these programs to become well-known to communities is an amazing step to increasing the representation of this condition.

Thank you so much for reading!

- Ashlyn Southerland


Amputee Coalition. (n.d.). Limb loss statistics.

Fish Insurance. (n.d.). The history and future of prosthetics.

Fuentes, L. (2021, January 21). The most common 3D printed prosthetics in 2021.

National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). 3D-Printable Prosthetic Devices. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


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