Children in even the most rural regions of Uganda are getting the prosthetic limbs they need with the help of 3D printing technologies.

Field workers from the University of Toronto and the Christian Blind Mission (CBM) are traveling to the Central African country to 3D scan those in need of prosthetic limbs and sending the information back to Uganda's CoRSU Hospital, where the customized prosthetics are 3D printed in less than 24 hours.

That eliminates the need for highly trained prosthetic technicians. That is crucial at a time when the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates another 40,000 trained prosthetic technicians are needed to meet the current demand in the developing world. What's worse, the WHO also estimates only another 18,000 prosthetic technicians can be trained within the next 50 years.

"The major issue with prosthetics in the developing world is not access to the materials of prosthetics; it is access to the expert knowledge required to form and create them," University of Toronto professor Matt Ratto said. "We're lacking prosthetic technicians, not prosthetics themselves."

Professor Matt Ratto with his CubeX 3D printer

Using 3D technology also means patients only need to take one brief trip to the hospital to get the new prosthetic and learn how to use it. The traditional method of making and fitting prosthetics normally requires several long stays in the hospital, which put the possibility out of reach for many Ugandans.

"The underserved population is largely rural," said Ginger Coons, a Ph.D. student in Ratto's lab. "People have to come to the hospital. Not many can afford the long stay. We want to make their stay a lot shorter."

Ratto and Coons hope that what they learn from the Uganda project will help them develop similar solutions in other parts of the world.

"Mobility is something that people take for granted, but for a lot of children in the developing world, they don't have the capacity to move on their own due to amputation and due to congenital disease," Ratto said.

Rato and Coons' research also explores the increasing blurriness between physical and virtual realms. While the loss of a leg and its replacement with an artificial limb are fundamentally bodily experiences, the body scans and prosthetic designs are digital.

This raises questions that are central to the work done at the university's Critical Making Lab, which Ratto directs. For instance, who owns the scan of the patient's body and the digital model of the prosthesis? How can patients control their medical information once it has been digitized? How much of an issue is it if the skilled parts of the job happen somewhere other than in Uganda?

For Ratto, this project is also an experiment in understanding new technologies through the first-person experiences of creating things with them.

"As a society, we've developed practices that are different digitally and physically, but we are starting to lose the separation," Ratto said. "Digital and physical modes are getting entangled. That's something that needs to be thought about. The prosthetics project is an example of how to explore these ideas."

3D Printing of Prosthetics for Children in Uganda from cbm Canada on Vimeo.