Within Arm's Reach: Students 3D Printing Prosthetic Hands

May 9, 2015

3D printing has grown in a few short years from the pages of science fiction to a reality, with machines now found on college campuses and even private homes. 3D printed products are making a big difference in the Capital Region.

“I’m Frank Williams, I live in Ghent, New York, I was a union carpenter, and all around construction and motorcycle enthusiast, and I had an accident and lost the use of my right hand. “ 

After suffering a motorcycle accident two years ago, Frank Williams is one of several people with physical disabilities who are getting a helping hand from a group of University at Albany students. A physical computing class in the Informatics department is using 3D printing technology to make custom prosthetics.

Led by their professor, Jonathan Muckell, the students are working on these prosthetics as their final projects. The theme: accessibility and disability technologies.

"This is part of the e-NABLE project, which is a volunteer community of people who print custom fit prosthetic hands for people who are missing fingers, and sometimes most of their palm,” Muckell said.

The prosthetic hands are printed with brightly colored, light-weight plastic filament. It can take 30 hours for a printer to complete one hand.

Other technologies developed by the students include a cane with a proximity sensor that alerts the user as objects get closer, and a device to help people with mobility issues know when a bathroom is occupied.

3D printers are becoming more common, used to print everything from living human cells to artfully designed food. RPI, Siena College, SUNY New Paltz and UMass Amherst are just a few of the colleges in our region that have brought 3D printing to campus. The 3D printing industry brought $3.07 billion in revenue in 2013, and is expected to exceed $21 billion in worldwide revenue by 2020, according to Forbes.

At UAlbany, the class is currently designing around six prosthetic hand donations. It’s a long-term project as each printing improves upon the previous design. A group of students donated four hands with the e-NABLE project last semester.

“It works by the kid flexing his or her wrist," Muckell said.

Usually, the students only see a picture of their clients’ hand flat on a table measured next to a ruler and a quarter for scale. Most of the hands are for children.

“Traditionally, medical grade prosthetics can be very expensive — potentially up to $40,000, which is very expensive for kids who are going to outgrow them so fast," Muckell said. "So, we can print these 3D printed hands, and ship them to kids who are going to benefit from them, for about 40 bucks.” 

Many of the students designed custom modifications for the prosthetic hands. One group designed a removable, interchangeable part on the palm. For kids, it’s designed to hold superhero themed-adaptations. For adults, something more practical, such as a magnet or light.

The students designed the hands using templates available online. But just because the blueprints were available, doesn’t mean this was an easy undertaking, according to graduating senior Matt Michaels.

 “The e-NABLE project, it’s an open source online community," he said. "There’s already designs online for the 3D print files to 3D print a prosthetic hand, the only problem is every person who needs a donation is a different case, and the hand that they have is always different.” 

Striving for accessibility and disability, students worked to come up with their own innovative technologies.

Alex Moeller, a senior, developed a wireless robotic hand, which is controlled by a headset that reads electrical activity in the brain.

"One connection goes to your earlobe, and the other goes on your forehead. And it reads through, I believe, the frontal cortex of the brain," he said. "What this is reading is my attention level, meditation level, and if I blink or not. If I blink, it’ll close the hand. If I’m paying attention, it’ll point. It’ll point two fingers. And if I’m very relaxed, it’ll show a peace sign."

Some of the projects are still works in progress. With hands, it can often take multiple iterations to get a perfect fit for the recipient. But for people who have waited in some cases years without a working hand — such as Williams, who had the motorcycle accident — these designs are promising.

“It’s very encouraging, they’ve got a lot of great ideas and they’ve come a long way with the short amount of time they had with making the devices," Williams said. “Any time they need me, I’m more than willing to come back, I’d like to come back just to watch them build and stuff, it’s very interesting.” 

WAMC News intern Michelle Checchi is a senior at UAlbany graduating with a degree in journalism and communication.