Monday, January 18, 2016

Engineering students design 3D-printed prosthetic arm for 6-year-old

Young kindergartner Alex Pring was born without most of his right arm.  He tries to do the same activities that children with all of their limbs do, though he's said that it's getting harder as he grows up. 

But recently his mother, Alyson Pring, found mechanical engineering doctoral student Albert Manero.  Manero is part of an online volunteer network called e-NABLE, which designs and creates prosthetics for people who do not have hands.  Part of the reason Manero joined was because he had a friend when he was younger who had missing fingers.

When Manero heard about Alex's need for a prosthetic, he got together a team (most of whom were fellow students at the University of Central Florida) to do something about it.  In their free time, the team (see a full list of members here) designed and built an arm for Alex.  And they did it using a 3D printer.

The team tested different ideas for seven weeks.  It was their first design for someone who did not already have a functioning elbow, which made their work especially challenging.  Additionally, children's prosthetics are harder to make in general, said Manero, because they are so much smaller than adult versions.  What the team ultimately came up with was a highly complex apparatus containing a muscle sensor, which allows Alex to open and close his new hand by flexing his bicep.  See it in action here:

Because the arm was made with widely available components, other people who own a 3D printer can potentially print and assemble their own prosthetics at home.  The engineers intend to make the design and building instructions for this new prosthetic available on the Internet for free, after a few of the kinks are worked out. Plans for many other hand prosthetics that e-NABLE has designed are already available here on e-NABLE's website.

With the help of some donated supplies, Manero's team managed to manufacture the arm for less than $350.  The potential for a low price tag could be of particular interest to low-income families, since most insurance companies will not pay for children's prosthetics due to how often they need to be replaced as a child grows.

Manero says he believes 3D printing is revolutionizing the world in many ways, and it doesn't have to stop at making only young people's lives better.  He says there's no reason why this approach to creating prosthetics couldn't work with adults as well.

As for Alex, the first thing he did with his new arm was hug his mother.

You can read more about Alex Pring and the making of his 3D arm from the University of Central Florida, the Orlando Sentinel, and the Huffington Post.

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