Prostheses printed in 3D are changing lives in Africa

Isaac is from Uganda. Due to a congenital malformation his left hand did not develop correctly. In a country like his, stricken by poverty and famine, orthopaedic appliances are archaic and prohibitively expensive.

Acquiring one is near impossible, however, Isaac now has a hand with which he can drink, drive and even learn mechanics. That hand has changed his life, and it is thanks to 3D printing that it has been developed.

Santiago Mas, a volunteer for África Directo, and Eduardo Cortés, a physiotherapist specialising in the hand and also a volunteer, met in this NGO. It was here where Santiago spoke to him of 3D printing, a technology that until then was unknown to Eduardo, and they watched videos of prostheses created in 3D by the NGO, Enabling the Future. That was the moment when they decided they could do the same.

“Printing in 3D lets you design a hand for little cost and produce it on site. It lets you create, create and create”.

The NGO built a school in Uganda for physically challenged children, and the volunteers visit the villages in search of youngsters to school and assist. Among the children they met was Isaac.

“We realised that Isaac's type of congenital malformation was ideal to test the hand that we wanted to develop”, says Eduardo. So with a Witbox 3D printer and some help and advice from BQ, “three or four” hands later they came up with the one Isaac uses today, “a marvel, a functional hand”.  

“It has total mobility, we just need to develop the finer movements a little more, such as writing or using a screwdriver. This is also difficult with high-priced prostheses, in fact, the expensive ones don't do this too well either”, says Eduardo.

For Isaac, the prosthesis offers a hopeful future. Now he can do something that was impossible for him before: grasp objects. He has also started to drive, and he has enrolled in vocational training to become a mechanic. He cannot use a screwdriver with the prosthesis but he can hold a part in place with it and screw with the other hand.

For Santiago and Eduardo, one of the primary advantages of 3D printing is the cost, which facilitates the creation of very cheap prostheses that are on a par with the heavier, more expensive, traditional oness. Isaac's hand cost slightly more than ten euros.

“Such low costs have opened up new territory in the field of orthopaedics”, says Eduardo. Another of its benefits is that various hands, each for a different use, can be designed for the same person. The future potential for development is enormous.

Share it with the world

Santiago and Eduardo's intention is that all these advances be shared and that they reach underdeveloped countries. This is why the two of them decided to promote Trucos Optimistas, a website with an aim of becoming a grand community, where designs and solutions are based primarily on 3D printing for physically challenged people.

“The idea is to make a community that brings together those who create designs and those who need them. These may be for people who are missing a limb or, for example, elderly people with serious hand tremor who need a solution for opening a door”, says Santiago.

protesis de mano impresa con BQ Witbox

The website is open and fully solidary, and the aim is that it becomes self supporting. Anyone who has an idea can share it here, just as someone who needs one can request it.

One project that has been uploaded to the site belongs to Knick: in 2014 he lost a finger in a motorcycle accident. He produced a 3D design (which he continues to improve) and agreed to share it in order to help others in the same situation.

The idea is that projects like Knick's reach all corners of the world, especially the more underprivileged ones. “Not long ago I spoke with a doctor from Columbia who told me that they have a huge problem with FARC mines: these have injured many people, however, the Columbian government doesn't subsidise orthopaedic prostheses. That very day a boy from there signed up to the community”, says Eduardo.

A hopeful future thanks to 3D printing

Not only that which has already been done is important, but also that which is still to come. Santiago and Eduardo want to send a Witbox 2 3D printer to Uganda and train the local NGOs in its use.

Santiago has just returned from Malawi where Felicia lives, a girl who lost both her arms in a traffic accident. They have created “technical aids” for her, which she can use to perform such basic chores as dressing herself.

In Spain they are helping Leo, a four year old lad for whom they have designed an arm that he can use to throw planes. In general, prostheses for small children are not functional, however, they do help to prepare them for those they may have in the future.

impresora bq witbox

Eduardo affirms that thanks to 3D printing a new field has opened up with great future potential: “the nicest thing about 3D is that you can create, create and create and there are no limits. It's so cheap to do and you only need a printer and people who are willing to use their heads, it's awesome. This can change someone's life, literally”.

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