Sometimes all it takes to change a life is a little plastic... and a lot of time. Davidson's Studio M maker space has both, and this fall has been putting them to good use on a worldwide project.
Using its 3D printers, Studio M has been printing prosthetic hands for children around the world with misshapen limbs, giving them the ability to ride a bike, pick up toys and lead a more abled life.
The initiative at Davidson is part of the e-NABLE Thousand Hands Project. e-NABLE is a global network of volunteers who use their 3D printers to create prosthetic plastic hands for those in need, most often from developing countries or underserved populations.
Studio M manager Brian Little initiated the project, joining volunteers from throughout cyberspace who serve as designers or printers of prosthetics in varying sizes. All the designs and files necessary for printing the hands are available for download at no cost on Thingaverse, a digital design website.
Little was inspired by Claire Gutermuth '15, who began custom designing and printing prosthetic hands for children during an internship at The Tech Museum of Innovation in Silicon Valley in the summer of 2014. She continued her work on campus during her senior year, and Little has led the initiative since her graduation.
Little met e-NABLE managers at the World Maker Faire in New York City and joined their effort to collect 1,000 hands by Oct. 1.
"They were asking people to download the most popular model-the ‘Raptor Hand'-print out the parts, bag them up and send them back. The idea was to deploy the kits to underserved areas where they could make a real difference," Little said. "I saw this as an opportunity for us. Our two 3D printers tend to frequently be idle at mid-semester, so for the cost of a couple of pounds of filament, we could make several hand kits."
Director of Instructional Technology Kristin Eshleman approved the project, and some of Studio M's budget was directed to purchase the plastic filament used to print the hands.
"The College's Statement of Purpose says in part that we work to ‘assist students in developing humane instincts,'" Little noted. "What's more humane than putting a percentage of the work we do toward a project that helps people achieve more livable, functional lives without spending thousands of dollars on a more expensive, high-tech prosthetic?"
Little also noted that the project is a good example of "appropriate technology." He said, "For example, it would be difficult to send a sophisticated 3D printer into a region where power might be unreliable, or where the environmental conditions might not be appropriate to run the equipment, or supplies might be hard to get. But we have the right conditions, and can leverage our technologies to produce things that are really needed in the world."
Little and his student employees Joe Zhou '16 and Björn Ordoubadian '15 worked throughout September in Studio M to build seven printed hand kits to send to e-NABLE. Although the printer takes about 30 hours to complete one hand kit at the largest size, the filament to create all seven cost less than $50. The plastic printed hands are not only inexpensive, but also are durable, easily fixed or replaced, and simple to clean.
Little said he hopes to continue printing the hands through Studio M as part of Davidson's ongoing contribution to Project e-NABLE, as well as to use the opportunity to boost students' 3D printing skills.