Superhumans: 3D Printed Prosthetic Power

The factor that distinguishes chimpanzees from humans is opposable thumbs. And what distinguishes humans from superhumans? Prosthetics – this time in the form of an opposable third thumb.

Prosthetics are commonly used to replace missing limbs, in order to improve mobility for those who most require it. With the cheaper and more efficient option of 3D printing, which also allows for more specific modification, organisations such as Open Bionics and Enabling the Future are beginning to 3D print prosthetic limbs for people who have either been born with something missing, or for those who have lost a limb in an accident, war or disaster.

As well as being used for replacement, developers are also now exploring and designing the possibilities for prosthetics to add greater capability to fully abled bodies. In recent years, the Technical University of Munich’s Department of Ergonomics designed a 3D printed “super thumb” for BMW factory workers, in order to prevent strain injury from lifting heavy car parts. After the workers’ hands were digitally scanned, 3D models of the individual thumb guards were designed to be printed. Created by selective laser sintering, the flexible silicon protectors give added strength and security when worn around the thumbs, thereby minimising strain injury.

Taking the idea of increasing capability even further and simultaneously winning the Helen Hamlyn Design Award for Creativity, Royal College of Art graduate Dani Clode from New Zealand has developed a prototype of a 3D printed prosthetic Third Thumb. This innovation aims to alter perceptions of disability and prosthetics, as well as assist in increased dexterity, coordination, and precision. With the wearable technology composing of three parts printed from formlabs resin and Ninjaflex filament, the prosthetic thumb is wrapped around the hand, attached to a wristband, and has flexibility in the joints to be able to move as a real thumb would. The three parts are connected using a bowden cable system, and is actually operated by pressure sensors placed under the toes, which control the motors in the thumbs via Bluetooth that pull against the intended tension of the 3D printed prosthetic.

Innovations like the Third Thumb are just the beginning, and with added potential and possibilities created by 3D printing, a future evolution of superhumans with more than just three thumbs in inevitable.

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