Changing Lives: 3D Printer Makes New Leg for Young Girl

Meet Rosaline Cheptoo

Rosaline Cheptoo

Cheptoo is Ugandan, and has a congenital abnormality – she was born without most of her right leg. This beautiful little girl was an outcast among her family and her community, as they believed that her condition was the result of a spell cast upon her.  A combination of the limitations that came with not having most of her leg, plus the views held by many around her, meant that she was not developing in line with other children her age. Cheptoo was not developing social skills as she did not play with other children. She had to be carried everywhere.

The cost of a prosthetic leg was prohibitive. Making a prosthetic leg would take a typical technician approximately one week. Furthermore, in Uganda, like much of Africa, there simply are not enough trained professionals to meet the demand for prosthetics. It is estimated that Uganda has approximately 200 prosthetists for up to 5,000 patients, most of whom need multiple prosthetic limbs as they grow from childhood to teenagers to adults. That means that, like Cheptoo, most Ugandans who have needed new limbs have gone without.

Enter technology. Specifically, 3D Printing. The name is misleading, as this is not about printing on paper. This is about a new mode of manufacturing just about anything, including a new leg. In The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies,  M.I.T. scientists Brynjolfsson and McAffee look at 3D printing along with breakthrough innovations, including driverless cars and staffless restaurants. They provide the following definition of 3D printing:

“3D printers deposit materials like liquid plastic that gets cured into a solid by ultraviolet light. Each layer is very thin – somewhere around one-tenth of a millimeter, but over time, a three dimensional object takes shape. And because of the ways it is built up, this shape can be quite complicated – it can have voids and tunnels in it, and even parts that move independently of one another.

Rosaline Cheptoo was identified by Comprehensive Rehabilitation Services in Uganda, an organization on the cutting edge of 3D printing technology through its partnership with the University of Toronto. Much of the software that was used to design her new leg is available for free. First, they scanned what remained of her original leg, using an inexpensive scanner. Second, the scan was brought into a software system that is available at no cost to technicians around the world, like those in Uganda who used it to design a custom socket, created to fit perfectly with her existing portion of a leg. Next, the technicians used a 3D printer to create the new leg, which took less than 24 hours. They added a standard prosthetic foot offered for free by the Red Cross.

And there you have it, Cheptoo got a new leg, custom built for her.

3d printing

3D printing is indeed a next generation technology that can be used for good in so many ways across Africa.  The World Health Organization estimates there are about 30 million people around the world, like Rosaline, who require prosthetic limbs, braces or other mobility devices, yet less than 20% have them.  The use of 3D printing to fill this void in Africa remains in a nascent stage, but in addition to Uganda, there are limited operating units making prosthetic limbs on 3D printers in Tanzania and Sudan.