Business partner wanted for 3D-printed prosthetics in Africa

Armed with consumer technology, Dr. Matt Ratto and his team at the University of Toronto provide Ugandan child amputees with 3D-printed prosthetic legs. “Both in terms of the impact we can have on a child’s life, as well as the business design of our activities, there really is an opportunity for something novel here”, Matt Ratto tells Club Africa.

In January 2015, Dr. Matt Ratto and his team of researchers from the University of Toronto visited CoRSU Hospital in Uganda to field-test a new 3D-printing technique that is used to make prosthetic limbs. CoRSU rehabilitation hospital in Uganda has a long history of fitting amputee children with prosthetic limbs, which made it an excellent test site for the project. The process of manufacturing prosthetic limbs, however, is traditionally carried out by hand, requiring five to six labour-intensive days to be completed. “Applying simple consumer-based scanning and printing techniques, we vastly reduce the time of production and improve wearer comfort”, Matt explains. Through Grand Challenges Canada, Matt’s team was recently empowered by a €84,000 grant.

Finding a business partner or investor

According to Matt, it is not the technical, but the social, business and organisational aspects of the project that are most challenging. “It is relatively easy to print a hand, arm or leg”, he claims, “but much harder to set up an activity that is sustainable and impacts the landscape of prosthetics for good. Having business partners and investors in Africa and other international contexts will help us scale up and introduce 3D printing in the field of prosthetics globally. We are currently seeking such partners.”

Consumer-based technology

Matt explains how he uses consumer-based technology to make a prosthetic limb: “First, a Microsoft Kinect in combination with specialised software is used as 3D scanning device. The scan of a patient’s residual limb is opened in SocketMixer, software we created that helps prosthetists turn the scan of the stump into a socket. Once processed by a computer, the socket is printed on a MakerBot 3D printer – again a simple, home-based technology. This 3D-printed socket is then connected to standardised pylons and feet issued by the Red Cross. The result is a standardised prosthetic limb, attached to a customised socket, delivered with high fitting accuracy, in a matter of hours.”

Revolutionising the sector

Matt concludes: “Our goal is to serve the largest possible population. But in order to achieve this, we need a sustainable institution responsible for management, maintenance and innovation – so that the team can focus on the specifics of its daily work. The impact of 3D printing on prosthetics is immense: we revolutionise the sector by automating what was perceived impossible for machines, and provide a solution for the huge shortfall of prosthetists in the developing world – some 40,000 until 2050, according to the World Health Organisation. Together with Christian Blind Mission – the Canadian charity that coordinates the project – we are not just focusing on the technological intervention. We are doing all the social and institutional work that makes this project sustainable over the long term.”

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