Kids get real helping hands from 3-D printers
BALTIMORE, Md. — When a parent asked Dr. Albert Chi about easy, available and affordable artificial hands for children, he was stumped.
He looked into the latest prosthetic limb technology and began hunting for cheaper, less complicated options.
Like many researchers, businesspeople and even artists in recent years, he turned to the 3-D printer. By using one his wife bought him for Father’s Day, sheets of colored plastic, and free designs and advice found online, he made a hand for about $20.
“One of the first kids we fitted was a 2-year-old,” Chi, a surgeon, said. “We thought the child was too young, but we weren’t even able to finish strapping it on, and the kid was picking an object up.”
A Network Of Helpers
The need for artificial limbs has created a network of volunteer designers, medical workers, artists, engineers, parents and fans of 3-D printing. The network has been outfitting children with inexpensive 3-D printed hands and is hoping to give hands — free of charge — to any interested child.
The organization has provided more than 400 children with 3-D printed prosthetics over the past year. With designs that are free on the website of a nonprofit called e-NABLE, families can print their own.
The 3-D printed versions are particularly useful for children, who often grow out of their artificial hands and cannot afford replacements every few months or years. The 3-D versions also can be lighter and easier to use, and come in their favorite colors.
Traditionally Useless And Scary
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 4 in 10,000 children a year, or about 1,500, are born with at least partial loss of a hand. That number doesn't even include those who lose their hands in accidents.
Health insurance does not always cover prosthetics for children, which can cost up to $40,000, Chi said.
Griffin Matuszek, 5, who was born without part of his left hand, found his traditional prosthetic mostly useless and a bit scary, said his mother, Quinn Cassidy. When someone sent the family a link to Chi’s work on 3-D hands, Cassidy’s father called the doctor.
Griffin, who requested a glow-in-the-dark hand, liked his new limb because he could put it on himself and it was easy to use. The traditional prosthetic hand was tight and covered his forearm.
“He put it on and immediately gave Dr. Chi a high-five and then gave everyone in the room a high-five,” Cassidy said. “He was able to pick up a small ball and throw it with his left hand right away.”
Cassidy said the hand made Griffin happy and more confident, and was not expensive. Griffin's mother was so grateful that she pledged to cover the cost of a 3-D printed hand for another child every time Griffin got a new one.
Many More Options
Mike Waldron, 22, a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, also received a 3-D printed hand.
“It gives me many options. I can go kayaking and work on my cars now,” Waldron said, adding that an electronic prosthetic device could cost as much as $40,000, while the one he received at Hopkins cost about $45. “It’s all plastic and the only metal is the screws. The string is 40-pound test fishing line.”
John Fielding, a 7-year-old from Arlington, Virginia, with a 3-D printed hand was looking forward to being able to play the guitar one day and ride a bike.
“Now, I can fight my sister,” he said, laughing.
Putting The Pieces Together
To make an artificial hand, plastic sheets are fed into the machines and melted. The plastic comes out in layers that eventually look like Lego pieces, and fitted together with plastic bolts, which are also printed.
Hand parts take up to 10 hours to print and another couple of hours to assemble with elastic cords to keep the hands open. Kids make them grasp by flexing their palms or wrists.
Chi, a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, called the effort a “labor of love.”
Brian Giavedoni, a prosthetist at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Georgia, helps children get prosthetic limbs and sees a place for 3-D printed hands.
Younger children don’t always see a need for a traditional prosthetic and find them awkward, since they have found ways to function without a limb or hand, he said. Some don’t see the need for both hands until they are teens, and parents often want the most advanced prosthetic.
Getting younger kids to wear them helps them learn, exercise their muscles and prepares them for more advanced equipment down the line, he said.
They Call Them Robohands
Printers have been used for other types of prosthetics, but hands were more difficult to develop, designers say.
Two men, one from South Africa and the other from Washington state, created the first usable 3-D printed hand. In 2011, Richard Van As, a South African carpenter, accidentally lost some fingers. He couldn’t afford a prosthetic, so he rigged a replacement but needed help making it more useful.
He found a sample online - a giant puppet that used metal cables - and began working with its maker, Ivan Owen.
A mother then asked for a prosthetic hand for her 5-year-old son, so As and Owen made him one too. They eventually replaced the hands with better 3-D printed versions they called Robohands.
They put those designs online for free.
A scientist from the Rochester Institute of Technology later founded e-NABLE, which matches children with people willing to print the hands.
“The goal is to make these devices as accessible and useful as possible,” Owen said. “It’s a powerful experience watching someone use a new hand.”