How 3-D printing has helped countless amputees

Faith Lennox is a 7-year-old who now has a prosthetic hand thanks to 3-D printing. Her story is becoming one of many as the technology advances.

Courtesy of Jen Owen
Jon Schull (right) shows surgeon Dr. Albert Chi the newest 3D-printed e-NABLE artificial hand prototype while on a visit to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore.

Faith Lennox lost her left hand due to complications during birth, but this never stopped the now 7-year-old from teaching herself to do things such as swim and surf with her father. She likely could have gone through life doing just fine with one arm.

But now Build It Workspace, a learning center that offers affordable access to advanced computing equipment such as 3-D printers, has given Faith something she had learned to live without: a complete left arm. 

Faith was able to design and 3-D print a prosthetic hand with the company, customized with all her favorite colors.

The “robohand” represents a breakthrough for children’s prosthesis. The hand was created in less than a day, is easy to use, and cost a total of $50 to create. Weighing only a pound, the tool is made of the same materials used in drones and automobile parts.

Faith’s new arm demonstrates a viable solution for children looking for prosthetics. She will need to be refitted with a new hand every six to 12 months as she grows, but instead of her parents spending thousands of dollars for each new model, the total cost will continue to be around $50.

The modernization of commercial 3-D printers has opened doors for prosthesis. Most prosthetic limbs are made of two components. One part is the replacement limb and the other is the “socket,” which connects the prosthetic to the body. Each part is made with a combination of materials including metals, plastics, and sometimes electronics.

Thanks to modern technology – and a number of charitable organizations and individuals – Faith’s story is becoming more commonplace. From Iron Man presenting a prosthetic limb to a young fan to Boy Scouts building and shipping robotic hands to individuals around the world, amputees everywhere are gaining access to prosthetics in ways they could only have dreamed of years ago. (Even handicapped dogs have benefited from the technology.)

There are still challenges for the technology, including government approvals, funding, and difficulty printing multiple materials at one time, but it has not stopped driven individuals from using 3-D printers to help their fellow man.

While Build It Workspace ended up creating Faith’s hand, her parents originally turned to another notable organization whose focus is helping amputees: E-Nable.

The nonprofit is a “global community collaborating to make free 3-D-printed prosthetic hands available to all who need them.” E-Nable’s current staff of about 4,000 volunteers is made up of engineers, occupational therapists, prosthetists, garage tinkerers, designers, philanthropists, and many others who have all come together for the common cause of making prosthesis affordable and accessible. Offering everything from design resources to connecting people with owners of 3-D printers, the organization has so far been able to build 1,000 hands that have gone to help 700 people.

Companies with a focus on poverty-stricken countries have more interesting challenges to deal with. One of these organizations is Not Impossible, which grew out of the award-winning “Daniel Project." Daniel survived a bomb blast during the civil war in Sudan, but the attack left the teenage boy without hands.

Not Impossible’s founder, Mick Ebeling, returned home from a trip to Sudan, determined to give back the boy’s ability to use his arms. Not only did he complete his goal, allowing Daniel to feed himself for the first time in two years, Mr. Ebeling went on to teach others in the community how to build and maintain the robotic arms to help the thousands of amputees left in the ruins of the war.

But innovators, such as WIliam Root, who invented a similar project called Exo, have continued to push the technology to meet the demands (and desires) of amputees. 

Mr. Root created a 3-D printing system for super-lightweight, stylish Exo prosthetic legs. The jet black design is made from titanium powder or high-strength plastic, which, as Wired put it, “makes the wearer look as if they’re materializing from a video game.” Root is someone who believes that creating prosthetic limbs is like "essentially designing a person" and the product should be as "unique as its owner." 

“Prosthetic limbs are stigmatized because they are so inhuman; most aftermarket companies that try to address this problem attempt to create a realistic-looking leg, which crosses into the uncanny valley,” Root told Wired, adding that he believes flesh-colored prosthetics are an attempt at a mass-market appeal, instead of being the “ultimate wearable” tech. He hopes in the future his mesh design will be able to come in a variety of colors or patterns to fit an individual's unique style.

As with many looking to advance 3-D printing, Root has run into fundraising and federal roadblocks, but, he says, that will not deter him. The technology is there; it just needs the proper funding.

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