Virginia Tech Researchers Develop 3D Printed Prostheses with Integrated Sensors for Improved Function

3D printed prosthetic
Blake Johnson holds up a mold of the right hand of Josie Fraticelli, who was born with amniotic band syndrome (Photo credit: Logan Wallace via Virginia Tech)

Although it is possible to 3D print your own prosthetic from models found in open-source database, those models lack the advanced electronic capabilities of more expensive, state-of-the-art prosthetics. Now, researchers at Virginia Tech solved that problem with their newly created prosthetic device with integrated electronic sensors to assess pressure distribution between a limb and the device itself. This new development could one day lead to more affordable electric-powered prosthetics.

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To develop their new prosthetic device, the researchers used 3D scanning data of a limb to integrate the sensors at the interface between the tissue and the device. They printed the device using conformal 3D printing, which allows material to be deposited onto curved surfaces.

By integrating electronic sensors at the intersection between a prosthetic and the wearer’s tissue, the researchers can gather information related to prosthetic function and comfort, such as the pressure across wearer’s tissue, that can help improve further iterations of the these types of prosthetics, reports Virginia Tech.

Mold of a hand
(Photo by Logan Wallace)

This method of integrating materials within form-fitting regions of 3D-printed prosthetics through a conformal 3D printing technique, instead of manual integration after printing, could also open doors for unique opportunities in matching the hardness of the wearer’s tissue and integrating sensors at different locations across the form-fitting interface. Unlike traditional 3D printing that involves depositing material in a layer-by-layer fashion on a flat surface, conformal 3D printing allows for deposition of materials on curved surfaces and objects.

The process developed by the researchers will lend itself to further applications in personalized medicine and design of wearable systems.

Blake Johnson, a Virginia Tech assistant professor in industrial and systems engineering, took a step forward in improving the functionalities of 3D-printed personalized wearable systems. This new research came out of his lab.

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“Personalizing and modifying the properties and functionalities of wearable system interfaces using 3D scanning and 3D printing opens the door to the design and manufacture of new technologies for human assistance and health care as well as examining fundamental questions associated with the function and comfort of wearable systems,” Johnson said.