Are prosthetics Obsolete? Priced out of The Heal Game
Modern limb prosthetics are quite amazing. The sudden need for large quantities of replacement limbs, born out of recent, bizarre wars such as the US-Iraq mess, has kick-started the prosthetic industry. A great many problems still need to be solved; however none is perhaps as serious as the new trend now beginning to emerge.
One of the latest offerings is the Össur Power Knee. Quoting directly from their latest press releases, we get this:
Truly sounds fantastic, a knee that anticipates the user's movements, and positions itself correctly to aid natural walking - as close as technology has yet come to an artificial leg joint functioning exactly like the original.
However, the Össur Power Knee costs about $96,000 (£48,000) to fit. This is a problem, as standard prosthetics, which do not move, limiting movement, and known by science to impart a great deal of stress and physical wear to the amputee's body, do cost an awful lot less than this.
The Power Knee and others have issued a strong kick up the posterior and wake-up call to the prosthetics industry. However, US health insurance and state-owned health providers in the UK and other countries simply will not pay $80,000 (£40,000) extra for a prosthetic with 'boast microprocessor controlled swing phase adjustment' when they can give the patient a cheap alternative instead. The alternative may not work very well, but the cost is reasonable.
As prosthetics continue to advance, they are going to become more complex, upping the price tag. Advanced prosthetics may therefore stall, in the coming years, unless there are ways to manufacture such advanced devices, much more cheaply, and offset the rising complexity.
3D printing - also known as "rapid prototyping" - transforms a blueprint on a computer into a real object by building up a succession of layers. Recently as of writing (June-August 2006), 3D printers have been able to print moving parts accurate enough to churn out cheap UAVs (Unmanned Arial Vehicles). Whilst nowhere near the precision engineering of a knee, the ability to 3D print UAVs demonstrates how quickly 3D printing is maturing. Within a decade it may very well be possible to 3D print limb prosthetics, slashing the cost apart.