3D printing gave these kids superhero prosthetic hands


Jordan Wilkes was born with only a thumb on his right hand. Buying the six-year-old a prosthetic hand—a device that can cost $6,000 to $10,000—is too expensive to be feasible for most families, especially given that kids his age often outgrow prosthetics within months.

But with 3D printing, a working prosthetic can be created with plastic materials that cost between $30 and $50. A growing community of makers is taking advantage of that potential by making 3D-printed prosthetic hands more widely available, in a move that has the potential to change the prosthetic industry.

The technology was on show yesterday at an event in Spokane, Wa. in which Wilkes was one of three kids with missing fingers who received a free 3D-printed prosthetic hand from e-NABLE, a nonprofit and online network of printing enthusiasts.

The group was started in 2013 by a prop maker from the U.S. and a carpenter from South Africa. The two posted their design for a prosthetic hand online for free instead of patenting it. Since then, more makers interested in the potential of the project joined on, volunteering designs or printers.

“What we’re doing is leveraging new manufacturing techniques along with new volunteer work to make this unbelievably accessible,” Ivan Owen, one of the co-founders, told Fusion.

A parent submits a photo of their kid’s hand and a ruler, along with some other measurements. Then one of the network’s volunteer members calculates the right size for the prosthetic, and other members 3D print hand pieces—there are about 30 in total—and ship them to the family. This decentralized approach more broadly distributes labor and cost.

Families snap the plastic parts together and add in some padding and velcro, and they’re ready to go. Powered by the child’s wrist movements, the hands allow their users to make a range of motions that many never have experienced.

When the kids outgrow their 3D-printed hand—which takes about six months, the same time as outgrowing a pair of shoes, Owen said—their parents can reach out to the e-NABLE network and get a larger size printed.

At the Spokane event yesterday at Shriner’s Hospital for Children, three lucky patients brought their families and were given free prosthetics.

Just as cool—to the young recipients, at least—was that each of the prosthetic hands was decorated to match the kid’s favorite superhero, a promotion paid for by the Marvel Universe live show.Wilkes’s was red and gold, like Iron Man. “Iron Man can blast things through his chest and through his arms,” he explained to TV station KXLY. Kylie Danbrook, 10, chose purple and black for Hawkeye while Marcus Lowley, 8, selected red and blue for Spider-Man.

Letting them choose their own colors “gives the kid a more personal connection to their device,” Owen said.

The parents worked through the assembly of the hands themselves, an important factor, Owen said.

“It empowers families because it gives them an active role in the process,” Owen said. “Families become designers themselves.”

“To see the delight on the kids’ face when they were able to grab things with it when they weren’t able to before was just amazing,” Kristin Monasmith, a spokesperson for Shriner’s Hospital, where the three kids are patients, told Fusion. “It was something they’ll remember for a long time.”

e-NABLE, which was certified as a 501(c)3 nonprofit this week, plans to invest in research and development to perfect the model, including creating a prosthetic powered with small electric motors. It will also work to expand access to 3D-printed hands in developing countries.

“The possibilities are limitless,” Owen said.

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.

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