Three-dimensional printing: a technology of the future. It once could only be thought to derive from a science-fiction novel, and yet has now evolved into one of the most popular trends of 2014. With a simple 3D printer, inventors have begun to construct anything and everything that can be designed on a digital file and built by thousands of horizontal layers of material. There have been 3D-printed instruments, chess sets, automobiles- even a 3D-printed house. However, the most amazing breakthroughs in 3D printing are arguably those in the field of medical science. Suddenly, an easier, cost-effective, and customizable method to meet the needs of certain health issues has emerged.
Patrick Myers, a senior at Valley Regional High School, has taken advantage of this opportunity, using the 3D printers at VRHS to construct a prosthetic hand.
Patrick began this process over the summer, when he discovered a YouTube video about Project Daniel by Not Impossible Labs. Project Daniel uses 3D printers to construct prosthetic arms for children of war in South Sudan. Intrigued, Patrick discovered and joined a group called “e-Nable” based out of the Rochester Institute of Technology. The organization’s mission statement describes the project as “A network of passionate volunteers using 3D printing to give the World a ‘Helping Hand.’” The team of engineers at RIT posts their designs for the prosthetic devices on the organization’s website, and Patrick was able to collaborate with the group to develop the design of the hand.
“So really, I did not come up with the concept; I just put my own spin on it,” he explains.
Patrick later attended e-Nable’s first conference, which was held at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Here, he was able to collaborate with other engineers who were particularly knowledgeable on the subject of prosthetic devices. One source of help was Jeremy Simon, who creates videos to explain the assembly of the hands. He worked with Patrick to review the measurements of the hand. Patrick also met Dr. Albert Chi at the conference, a trauma surgeon
at Johns Hopkins who has extensively researched the improvement of prosthetic technology.
The design of the hand is based upon the individually printed plastic pieces, which are attached together with screws. Patrick then added strings to act as tendon lines. He explains, “When the user bends his or her wrist, the string [sic] tensions and pulls the fingers down, allowing the user to create a fist or to grip a desired item. When the user relaxes his or her wrist, elastic cords help return the fingers to a resting position, and the grip is released.”
Around Thanksgiving of 2014, Patrick completed the prosthetic hand and sent it to a four-year old named Max Gianninotti in Sandy, Bedfordshire of England. Max, who was born with missing fingers, is now able to grip objects more effectively. His next ambition is to learn to ride a bicycle.
Patrick explains that 3D-printed prosthetic devices are especially beneficial for children. They quickly outgrow expensive prosthetics that may cost over forty-five thousand dollars. This device cost less than fifty dollars to make, and all e-Nable devices are donated to children.
Another benefit to these devices is that they allow children with malformed hands or limbs to exercise these inactive muscles and prevent the cells from atrophying, or degenerating. This can be especially beneficial in the long-term.
Another purpose of the hands is to boost the self-confidence of the children. With the help of Craig Rahemba of Computer Signs in Old Saybrook, Patrick designed the device to resemble the bionic hand of the superhero Ironman. He says, “These kids are probably used to the weird looks and questions about their arms and hands. When they are wearing one of the customized 3D printed hands, they become rock stars among their friends.”
And Patrick’s 3D-printing expedition does not stop with the prosthetic hand. Currently, he is developing the even more ambitious project of an entire 3D-printed prosthetic arm that is controlled not with tendon strings, but by muscle sensors and motors. He hopes to have this endeavor finished within the next few months. He intends to major in Biomedical Engineering, and expects that he may encounter even more 3D printing and prosthetics in the future.
Making a significant difference in a child’s life is one way to conclude a high school career with a bang. Patrick’s final words on the venture: “This project was pretty easy for me; it just took time and patience. I guess I realized that one person is able to make a difference. That difference does not have to be some grand, expensive idea. Making a difference in somebody’s life can be incredibly simple.”