Wearable system interfaces: How can electronic sensors be integrated into improved 3D printed prosthetics?

An image of an example of 3D printed prosthetics
The mold of local teen Josie Fraticelli's hand that was scanned during the development of a personalized prosthetic. Photo by Logan Wallace. © Virginia Tech

3D printed prosthetics are currently lacking personalised wearable system interfaces which are found in state-of-the-art prosthetics. Virginia Tech has assessed how they can be improved with the integration of electronic sensors.

It is possible to use models in open-source databases to create your own 3D printed prosthetics. However, personalised electronic user interfaces to modify the functions are lacking.

A professor from Virginia Tech and an interdisciplinary team of undergraduate student researchers have made progress in the integration of electronic sensors with personalised 3D printed prosthetics, which may lead to more affordable electric prosthetics in the future.

The importance of personalised wearable system interfaces

Blake Johnson, a Virginia Tech assistant professor in industrial and systems engineering, explained: “Personalising and modifying the properties and functionalities of wearable system interfaces using 3D scanning and 3D printing opens the door to the design and manufacture of new technologies for human assistance and health care as well as examining fundamental questions associated with the function and comfort of wearable systems.”

How it can be achieved in 3D printed prosthetics

The researchers are able to gather information related to prosthetic function and comfort (for example the pressure across the tissue of the person wearing it) by integrating electronic sensors at the intersection between the prosthetic and the tissue. This can help to improve further iterations of the prosthetics.

Instead of manually integrating electronic sensors after printing, the integration of materials within form-fitting regions of 3D printed prosthetics could be achieved by a conformal 3D printing technique. This could present unique opportunities for matching the tissue hardness and integrating sensors at different locations across the form-fitting interface.

Conformal 3D printing means that materials can be deposited on curved surfaces or objects, unlike traditional 3D printing which is limited to the deposition of materials layer by layer onto a flat surface.

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