Birth of 3D Printed Prosthetics: A Timeline

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Written By Charlie Humphreys

Charlie Humphreys is a respected expert in the field of 3D-printed prosthetics. With a background in biomedical engineering and extensive experience in 3D design and printing technologies, Charlie has dedicated his career to developing innovative prosthetic solutions that are both accessible and affordable.

The invention of 3D printed prosthetics has revolutionized the field of medical devices. This groundbreaking technology has provided customizable and affordable solutions for individuals in need of prosthetic limbs. Let’s explore the timeline of when this innovative technology was first introduced, tracing the birth of 3D printed prosthetics from its inception to its current state of advancement.

The Father of 3D Printing: Charles Hull

Charles Hull, an employee at 3D Systems Corporation, is widely recognized as the father of 3D printing. In 1986, he patented the Stereolithography Apparatus (SLA) machine, which used UV light to solidify layers of plastic veneers to create 3D objects. The SLA-1 machine, priced at $300k in 1988, was the first commercially available 3D printer. Hull’s invention was a significant milestone in the development of 3D printing technology and paved the way for further advancements in the field.

The Early Days of 3D Printed Prosthetics

While the concept of 3D printing in prosthetics was being explored by academics as early as 1991, it wasn’t until 2011 that the technology gained traction for prosthetic applications.

The first notable instance of 3D printed prosthetics was the collaboration between Ivan Owen and a carpenter in South Africa, resulting in a mechanical hand for a child named Liam. This breakthrough showcased the potential of 3D printing in creating customizable and affordable prosthetic devices.

The open-source approach adopted by Owen and his collaborators led to the establishment of E-Nable, a non-profit organization that continues to provide 3D printed prosthetics to those in need.

Advancements in Software and Materials

Over the years, there have been significant advancements in software and materials used in 3D printing prosthetics. These advancements have improved the adoption of 3D printing technology in the orthotic and prosthetic industry.

The development of more sophisticated software tools has made it easier for designers to create complex 3D models for prosthetic devices. With advanced software, designers can now fine-tune the dimensions, shapes, and intricate details of prosthetics with precision.

Additionally, the availability of a wide range of lightweight and durable materials has further enhanced the quality and functionality of 3D printed prosthetics. Engineers and material scientists have been working tirelessly to develop materials that provide optimal strength, flexibility, and biocompatibility for prosthetic applications.

Advantages of Software Advancements

  • Enhanced customization: With advanced software, prosthetic designers can create personalized prosthetics tailored to each individual’s unique needs and preferences.
  • Improved accuracy: The use of sophisticated modeling and simulation tools helps ensure precise fitting and alignment of 3D printed prosthetics, optimizing comfort and functionality.
  • Streamlined design process: Software advancements have made it easier to iterate and refine designs, reducing the time and cost associated with traditional manufacturing methods.

Materials Revolutionizing Prosthetic Devices

The availability of innovative materials has revolutionized the field of 3D printed prosthetics. Here are some key materials used in the fabrication of prosthetic devices:

  1. Thermoplastics: Lightweight and flexible thermoplastic materials, such as polylactic acid (PLA) and polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG), offer excellent durability and biocompatibility for creating prosthetic components.
  2. Metallic alloys: Titanium and cobalt-chromium alloys provide exceptional strength and lightweight properties, making them ideal for manufacturing load-bearing and structural components of prosthetics.
  3. Elastomers: Flexible elastomeric materials, like thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) and silicone, are used in creating prosthetic liners and soft components that closely mimic the elasticity of natural tissues.
  4. Bioactive materials: Advances in biocompatible materials, such as hydrogels and biodegradable polymers, have opened new possibilities for 3D printing prosthetics with regenerative capabilities.

The continuous research and development in software and materials used in 3D printing prosthetics hold immense promise for the future, ensuring improved functionality, comfort, and accessibility for individuals in need of prosthetic devices.

Medical Breakthroughs with 3D Printing

The field of medicine has experienced significant advancements through the application of 3D printing technology. One notable milestone occurred in 1999 when the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine achieved a groundbreaking feat: they successfully printed the first 3D organ, specifically a human bladder.

This momentous accomplishment demonstrated the enormous potential of 3D printing in the realm of regenerative medicine. With the ability to fabricate fully functional organs, scientists and researchers were able to envision a future where patients in need of transplants would be able to receive customized, bioengineered organs created using 3D printing techniques.

Since then, the exploration of 3D printing’s possibilities in organ and tissue fabrication has continued. Scientists worldwide have dedicated their time and efforts to push the boundaries of what can be achieved with this groundbreaking technology, paving the way for future advancements in healthcare.

With the ability to reproduce complex anatomical structures, 3D printing has opened doors to various medical applications. Here are a few examples:

Innovative Prosthetics

  • 3D printing allows for the creation of highly precise and customizable prosthetic devices. These printed prosthetics offer improved comfort, functionality, and aesthetics, granting individuals with physical disabilities a better quality of life.

Personalized Surgical Models

  • Surgeons can now leverage 3D printing to produce accurate patient-specific surgical models. These models provide invaluable insights into complex surgical procedures, allowing surgeons to plan and practice surgeries beforehand, ultimately improving patient outcomes.

Bioprinting of Tissues

  • Using a combination of biocompatible materials and living cells, scientists are exploring the field of bioprinting, where they can create functional living tissues. This technology holds immense potential for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, promising solutions for patients with tissue damage or organ failure.

As the medical community continues to explore the possibilities of 3D printing, it is clear that this technology has the power to revolutionize healthcare. From innovative prosthetics to the fabrication of complex organs, 3D printing offers new avenues for medical professionals to improve patient care and outcomes.

The Rise of Accessible 3D Printing

One significant development in recent years is the increasing accessibility of 3D printing technology. The cost of 3D printers has dramatically decreased, making them more affordable for average consumers. While these machines cost around $20,000 just a few years ago, there are now models available for under $500. This affordability has laid the foundation for a potential explosion in the home inventor and DIY markets.

With the accessibility of 3D printing, tasks such as creating replacement parts, prototyping, and even printing personalized dental implants are becoming more feasible. This opens up new opportunities for individuals to bring their ideas to life without the need for expensive manufacturing processes.

Benefits of Accessible 3D Printing:

  • Cost-effectiveness: The reduced cost of 3D printers allows individuals to save money by producing their own customized objects instead of purchasing them from manufacturers.
  • Creative freedom: Accessibility to 3D printing technology empowers individuals to unleash their creativity and turn their innovative ideas into reality.
  • Personalization: With 3D printing, it’s easier than ever to create personalized objects tailored to an individual’s unique needs and preferences.
  • Empowering the DIY market: The availability of affordable 3D printers has led to a surge in the home inventor and DIY markets, enabling individuals to become makers and creators in their own right.

The rise of accessible 3D printing has democratized manufacturing, putting the power of creation into the hands of everyday individuals. As the technology continues to evolve and become more accessible, we can expect to see further advancements and innovations in various industries, shaping the way we design, produce, and interact with objects in our daily lives.

The Future of 3D Printed Prosthetics

As technology continues to advance, the future of 3D printed prosthetics holds immense potential. Researchers and engineers are dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what these devices can achieve, with a focus on enhancing functionality and customization.

One area of future advancement lies in the development of improved materials for 3D printed prosthetics. Scientists are exploring innovative materials that closely mimic the properties of natural limbs, such as lightweight and flexible materials that offer increased comfort and durability.

Efficiency in the printing process is also a significant area of focus. Researchers are working to optimize printing techniques to reduce production time without compromising on quality. By streamlining the manufacturing process, more individuals can benefit from 3D printed prosthetics in a shorter period of time.

Potential Applications

  • Enhanced Functionality: The integration of artificial intelligence and robotics has the potential to revolutionize the field of prosthetics. By combining these technologies, prosthetic devices can become advanced tools that not only replace missing limbs but enhance human capabilities. This includes improved dexterity, sensory feedback, and intuitive control systems.
  • Customizable Solutions: As 3D printing technology continues to evolve, prosthetics can be tailored to each individual’s specific needs. Customization allows for better fitting and increased comfort, leading to improved mobility and quality of life for prosthetic users.
  • Affordable Access: With continued advancements, the cost of 3D printed prosthetics is expected to decrease, making them more accessible to a broader range of individuals. This affordability has the potential to transform the prosthetics industry, enabling more people to benefit from these life-changing devices.
  • Medical Applications: Beyond replacing missing limbs, 3D printing technology holds promise in the field of regenerative medicine. Researchers are exploring the possibility of printing living tissues and organs, opening up new avenues for transplantation and personalized medicine.

The future of 3D printed prosthetics is filled with exciting possibilities. With ongoing research and development, we can expect to see continued advancements in materials, printing processes, and applications. These developments have the potential to transform the lives of individuals in need of prosthetic solutions, offering them enhanced functionality, increased customization, and improved accessibility.


The invention of 3D printed prosthetics has revolutionized the field of orthotics and prosthetics, providing individuals in need with customizable, affordable, and functional solutions. The journey of 3D printed prosthetics began in the late 1990s but gained significant attention in 2011 when a mechanical hand was created for a child named Liam through a grassroots initiative. This led to the establishment of E-Nable, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing prosthetic devices for underserved communities.

Since then, there have been notable advancements in software, materials, and accessibility in the field of 3D printed prosthetics. Improved software tools have made it easier for designers to create complex 3D models, while a wide range of lightweight and durable materials have enhanced the quality and functionality of 3D printed prosthetics. Furthermore, the increasing accessibility of 3D printing technology has made it more affordable for average consumers, opening up possibilities in the home inventor and DIY markets.

Looking ahead, ongoing research and development in 3D printed prosthetics hold great promise for the future. With continued advancements, these devices are likely to become even more customizable and functional, closely resembling natural limbs. The integration of artificial intelligence and robotics may further revolutionize the field, enabling prosthetics to enhance human capabilities beyond just replacements for missing limbs. As technology continues to evolve, the potential applications and benefits of 3D printed prosthetics will continue to expand, improving the lives of individuals worldwide.