A University of Toronto lab is partnering with an international NGO and a Ugandan hospital to use 3D scanning and printing to speed the process of creating and fitting sockets for artificial limbs. While 3D printing has been around for some time, a new generation of fast, cheap 3D printers offers up a world of possibilities for highly-customized products.

Although prosthetic limbs can be mass-produced, prostheses must be customized to suit a recipient’s individual physiology. Traditional assessing and fitting procedures take many days or weeks, and require specialized knowledge of an on-site prosthetic technician.

“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,” says Matt Ratto, a professor in the Faculty of Information. “We’re lacking prosthetic technicians, not prosthetics themselves.”

Today, though, a 3D scan of a Ugandan’s residual limb can be sent within seconds to another part of the world where a prosthetist can digitally design a replacement, sending that file back to Africa to be printed. Printers are increasingly sophisticated, capable of using a wide range of resins and polymers to create three-dimensional objects.

The implications of such a system are many, but one is the capacity to make a prosthesis in less than 24 hours. For many Ugandans, speed is more than a matter of convenience; it’s the difference between getting a prosthetic limb or not.