San Diego startup makes artificial limbs with 3D printer

Patients seeking care at a hospital in Ensenada, Mexico have lost limbs in many different circumstances. Mainly because of traumatic accidents or diabetes.

Now they’re getting artificial limbs made by a 3D printer, through a new La Mesa-based company called LIMBER Prosthetics & Orthotics.

The company said its digital system can be a cheaper and faster way to customize prostheses. LIMBER P&O currently provides prosthetics to patients in Ensenada with funding from the Coronado Rotary Club and Rotary Club Ensenada Calafia.

“It’s the LIMBER unileg,” said company co-founder Joshua Pelz while demonstrating a printed sample of a custom lightweight plastic leg and foot stocking.

“It’s a one-piece prosthesis that is 3D printed in just half a day,” he said. “So you press ‘start’ at night, and you pull it out like that in the morning, ready to continue an amputee, allowing them to come back into the world.”

Pelz is a PhD student in materials science and engineering at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). The company’s artificial limbs are printed in a lab on the UCSD campus. He said their process began with a scan of the lower body, using a FaceID-equipped iPhone.

“We scan the patient from the waist down. We take that digitized data and feed it into the computer as a 3D model,” Pelz said. “And we basically build the entire prosthetic device around that scan data.”

Another co-founder of Limber P&O is Herb Barrack, a prosthetist who has been creating artificial limbs for decades. Many years ago he carved them by hand out of balsa wood.

Barrack established a relationship with Ensenada Hospital many years ago, making it a logical partner for the use of Limber prostheses. This summer, the company announced that it would deliver ten more limbs to the clinic.

Barrack said 3D printers bring a huge benefit to creating prosthetics.

“It’s precision,” he says. “The 3D printer and the digital process allow us to be very precise. The digital process allows us to duplicate the alignment. And, most of the time, our alignment is very, very close to the desired alignment.

He said the limbs can be “thermally molded”. This means that you can heat the plastic material and adjust its shape.

“We watch our patients walk,” Barrack said. “We observe their approach with the unileg. And if we want to make alignment adjustments, we can easily do that.

One amputee who used an artificial leg made by Limber P&O is San Diegan Diana Zambrano, who lost her right leg in a traffic accident about 20 years ago. She said that using a new prosthesis is like putting on new shoes. They don’t always feel or go well.

“In this case, the Limber leg, I don’t know if it’s the technology or what it is. But as soon as I wore it, I was able to walk very comfortably. And wear it for long periods of time,” Zambrano said.

So far, the company has focused on creating artificial lower legs, below the knee. But Pelz said knee joint printing is in the company’s future.