3D printing changing prosthetics forever

For industrial designer Scott Summit, the ability to make perfectly fitted, custom prosthetics is a major goal. But 3D printing is also changing the industry for one-off lamps, shoes and more.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
A slide from a talk by industrial designer Scott Summit showcases what is now possible in prosthetics using 3D printing. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

MENLO PARK, Calif.--With America mired in two wars, injured soldiers are constantly returning home with missing limbs. But their path to useful--and attractive--prosthetics could be shorter than ever, thanks to 3D-printing technology.

And it's not just artificial limbs that may be going through a design renaissance: because of the infinite flexibility of digital designs, almost any kind of physical product could find wide new style, aesthetics, and custom models because of the machines, which can quickly, cheaply, and efficiently produce almost anything that can be imagined and crafted in a 3D modeler.

That was the message that industrial designer Scott Summit shared with a group of students from the executive program at Singularity University on Thursday. Meeting at the increasingly well-known TechShop here, a hotbed for do-it-yourself manufacture of any number of designs on a series of industrial machines, Summit and the students engaged in about an hour of discussion about the revolution in design and production that is now well under way because of 3D printing.

In a traditional industrial design regimen, said Summit, who also teaches design courses at Stanford University, the goal has always been to try to make every product as identical as possible. But with 3D printing, it has finally become possible to make just about any kind of item with amazing complexity--and produce just one unit.

And while 3D printing, which is done on large machines that can spit out copies of digital designs on a wide range of materials, from polymers to recyclable plastics to metals, still has its limitations--the machines can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and often turn out misprinted copies--the use of the devices may forever change how design is done and how consumers order products.

In his talk, a shorter version than one Summit has given at various conferences and at Stanford, he discussed the idea that the era of blind adherence to uniformity may well be at an end, with or without 3D printing. As an example, he pointed to the NikeID program, under which customers can buy shoes that are made to order, and to the fact that there are 10.2 million different available design permutations of Mini cars--far more than there will ever be Minis on the road--given the many different color and pattern options buyers can choose. He compared that to the Model T Ford, which came solely in black.

With 3D printing, however, the custom nature of products has gone further than ever before. The printers can produce models based on nearly any 3D model fed into them, almost regardless of complexity, meaning that what comes out of the machines is limited mainly by the imagination of those using them.

A slide in a presentation by Summit shows a 3D printout that represents the flight of a moth. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

As a result, there has been an artistic revolution in product lines which previously had much more rote sets of offerings. Indeed, Summit said the state of the art in the technology has turned out to be bud vases and fruit baskets--items that, more and more, are taking on truly abstract and extraordinary designs for no other reason, it seems, than that it's possible.

At the same time, designers are using 3D printers to create items that, until now, could not have been made at all. For example, Summit pointed to a physical model available for sale at the Museum of Modern Art store in New York that is based on what came out of someone's nose when they sneezed.

"You can buy snot for $300 at MoMA," he said. "I think that's cool as hell."

Another 3D printout he showed the Singularity University students--who are taking part in a 10-day program focusing on exponentially growing technologies like artificial intelligence, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics--was based on the flight path of a moth that was scanned by designers and later digitally modeled.

Much of the more aesthetic designs coming out of 3D printers these days, Summit explained, are things that could not have been made by anyone just 10 years ago. And while one way to get perfect digital models is to use an expensive 3D scanner, he said he uses nothing more than two inexpensive digital cameras and a projector to create the kinds of scans that allow him to produce models that are more than good enough to meet his needs.

Complexity is free
With 3D printing, because the source material is made of digital representations of geometric forms, there is no additional cost to making something complex rather than something simple, Summit said. "You want all options (for a product)?" he said. "The cost is the same. Geometry is free. Complexity is free."

What that means, he added, is that the designers of things like lamps have the freedom to take artistic risks that they would never have been able to take in the past and that manufacturers of mass-produced products like cars could never take.

"If nobody buys the lamp," he said, the designers "are out the costs of one lamp. If no one buys a Ford," there is big trouble.

That makes for a completely new business model for companies like Freedom of Creation, which makes a diverse collection of 3D-printed lamps, shoes, headphones, and other items. It means, Summit said, that the company, and those following the same business model, don't have to carry any inventory and can print entirely to order.

Plus, he said, there's no tooling required, so besides having had to initially buy a 3D printer and the designers' time, there are no up-front costs for creating new products.

For Summit, the peak of what's possible with 3D printing may be found in the medical and prosthetic fields. Because of 3D scanners, he said, it's possible to craft prosthetics that almost perfectly mold to a wearer's body, unlike more standard models from the past.

Summit shows off one of his 3D-printed prosthetic leg designs. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Personally, he works on making 3D printouts of legs for those who have lost their own, both in plastic and metal. Summit's 3D-printed legs are even dishwasher-safe, he said, and curbside-recyclable artifacts of the materials that can be used in the production of such items.

Because the models can be shaped based on patients' remaining legs, Summit suggested that they are more attractive than what has been possible in the past. Indeed, he said those who have sported early models have reported regular admiring comments from kids and even girlfriends.

"For the first time in his life [as an amputee], kids on the street are jealous of him," Summit said of one customer. "No one's ever been jealous of him."

And to Summit, hearing that those who have used his prosthetics find them to be a pleasant part of their lives--insofar as such an item can be pleasant--is a big part of why he's set out to transform an industry that has been helping people for years, but with little regard to their specific individual needs.

"If the first thing you see in the morning is this by your bed," Summit said of one of his more attractive prosthetic models, "you're pretty psyched. That's my goal."