With the growth of 3D printing, it’s entirely possible to 3D print your own prosthetic from models found in open-source databases.

But those models lack personalized electronic user interfaces like those found in costly, state-of-the-art prosthetics.

Now, a Virginia Tech professor and his interdisciplinary team of undergraduate student researchers have made inroads in integrating electronic sensors with personalized 3D-printed prosthetics — a development that could one day lead to more affordable electric-powered prosthetics.

This newly published research out of the lab of Blake Johnson, a Virginia Tech assistant professor in industrial and systems engineering, took a step forward in improving the functionalities of 3D-printed personalized wearable systems.

By integrating electronic sensors at the intersection between a prosthetic and the wearer’s tissue, the researchers can gather information related to prosthetic function and comfort, such as the pressure across wearer’s tissue, that can help improve further iterations of the these types of prosthetics.

The integration of materials within form-fitting regions of 3D-printed prosthetics via a conformal 3D printing technique, instead of manual integration after printing, could also pave the way for unique opportunities in matching the hardness of the wearer’s tissue and and integrating sensors at different locations across the form-fitting interface. Unlike traditional 3D printing that involves depositing material in a layer-by-layer fashion on a flat surface, conformal 3D printing allows for deposition of materials on curved surfaces and objects.

According to Yuxin Tong, an industrial and systems engineering graduate student and first author of the published study, the ultimate goal is to create engineering practices and processes that can reach as many people as possible, starting with an effort to help develop a prosthetic for one local teen.

“Hopefully, every parent could follow the description from the paper we published and develop a low-cost personalized prosthetic hand for his or her child,” Tong said.