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Student Custom Designs Low-Cost Prostheses for Children

Claire Gutermuth
Claire Gutermuth ’15 works on a prosthetic hand for a 4-year-old boy in Davidson’s Makerspace, Studio M.

Claire Gutermuth '15 is frustrated. "Why won't it process?" She mutters to herself, and begins to type. She sits on a stool at a worktable in Davidson's Makerspace, Studio M, surrounded by technological gadgets and tools. On her computer screen is a digital rendering of a...well, it's hard to say, exactly. It looks like a new-age blueprint of some sort – a 3D model of a curved structure that bends, expands and rotates at the stroke of a key.

It's a forearm. That is, a soon-to-be forearm.

On her keyboard sits a palm and opisthenar (back of the hand). It's a small, gray, plastic piece that will (hopefully) fit into the soon-to-print forearm and later-to-print thumb and fingers.

Gutermuth is using 3D modeling software and Davidson's 3D printers to design a functioning prosthetic hand for a 4-year-old boy named Shane who lives in California.

Within minutes, she figures out the problem. The forearm design is ready to print.

Rising to the Challenge

Shane will be the second child to receive a prosthetic hand from Gutermuth. In September she delivered the first to a 9-year-old girl named Ebba, also from California, and she is about to start on a third, for a 6-year-old boy named Kaniela. It's hard to imagine that until four months ago, she had never used a 3D printer.

Ebba
Ebba, 9, shows off her new prosthetic hand, designed by Claire Gutermuth ’15.

A psychology major with an interest in design but no formal technology training, in June Gutermuth started an eight-week internship at The Tech Museum of Innovation in Silicon Valley. There she found herself immersed in technology among creative technical minds, with high expectations and a steep learning curve. And she faced the challenge head-on.

"Claire contributed right away at the technical level, which I think surprised a lot of people, knowing her liberal arts background," The Tech President Tim Ritchie '83 said. "Often, people in the tech world don't know what liberal arts students have to offer, and even the liberal arts students at first don't always realize all that they have to offer. Claire really impressed people from day one."

The Tech staff members use 3D printers to design exhibit prototypes. On her second day on the job, Gutermuth was asked to figure out how to fix one of the printers (which she did) and after just two weeks, Gutermuth began working with the exhibits team on prototypes, including several created with the 3D printers.

"I wanted to use the printers for something impactful," Gutermuth said, and set to work on her first independent 3D modeling project: a hand.

She remodeled the hand using existing modeling software and programming she found in open-source, online modeling communities. And that project set in motion a series of life-changing events.

Nine-year-old Ebba visited the museum with her mother, saw the hand Gutermuth had created, and wanted one. Ebba was born with an upper limb abnormality, missing some fingers and others malformed. The next day, Gutermuth took a plastic cast of Ebba's hand and began working on a prototype.

"I wanted to not only build her a hand but model it to fit her," Gutermuth said, which meant she had to learn how to tweak the modeling program to make the desired adjustments.

"With the right tools, and spaces, and motivation, people can do great things. It's thrilling that Claire's project started in The Tech," Ritchie said.

Learning Resources

Gutermuth used every tool at her disposal. She became an active participant in the open-source modeling community as she worked on Ebba's hand, sourcing programs and ideas and asking questions.

"3D modeling is one of the hardest things I've ever done," she said. "I had to figure out things like whether the hinge was in the right place, whether it was too big or too small, and then figure out how to adjust it. It gave me real experience with iterative prototyping."

Through her work she connected with Jon Schull, the founder of E-nable, an online community of volunteers working together to design 3D printer programs for prostheses. She talked with him via Skype about project specifics and about larger issues related to prosthetic design and production.

She also spoke with Orthopedic Surgery Resident Kurt Yusi '00 at the University of California, San Francisco and then with a prosthetist about care for people with amputations and the process of rehabilitation. She learned that a successful recovery is "about 10 percent prosthetic design, and 90 percent rehabilitation," she said.

Additionally, patients need coping mechanisms to help them deal with the stigma and cultural views commonly associated with amputation – issues that relate directly to Gutermuth's interests in psychology and the human condition.

"Claire combines psychology and design in just the right ways," Schull said. "Too often design can become the craft of making technology more attractive. But in the right hands, technology can make useful things and truly help people."

Low-cost Prosthetics

prosthetic hand
The prototype of Gutermuth’s next prosthetic hand, destined for a 4-year-old boy, is Star Wars-inspired.

Printable, plastic prostheses provide options for a much broader patient base in that they are customizable and significantly less expensive than traditional options.

"We are able to make a prosthetic hand for about $10 worth of plastic and $40 worth of hardware," Gutermuth said, whereas high-end prosthetics can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $30,000.

"The cheaper options are great because they can be customized, which is especially useful for kids," she said. "They're growing, so they will need new sizes regularly, and also they don't necessarily want hands that look ‘real.'"

The hand she is currently designing for the four-year-old boy is Star Wars-inspired.

The relatively low cost of production and open-source design community could radically change the prosthetic industry and the patient experience, and Gutermuth is advancing her knowledge through research and continued work with E-nable.

Continuing Research

In September Gutermuth joined Schull as a co-presenter at a MedicineX conference hosted by Stanford, and at that conference presented Ebba with her new prosthetic hand. She is now researching low-cost prosthetic design and care for people with amputations in the developing world as part of an independent study at Davidson.

She also wants to use the college Makerspace to design her own prototype – one that more closely mimics a real hand, using a ball hinge for the wrist joint, she said.

"The defining drive of a Davidson student is to make a difference," Ritchie said. "Claire had a sense of what difference she wanted to make in the world, and I think she found what she was looking for."

More Info

See Jon Schull and Claire Gutermuth '15 speak at the MedicineX conference (Begins at minute 15).