3-D printing gives flexible DIY hands to those in need

Yue Yin Feb 21, 2016

When I think about 3-D printing technology, most of my thoughts revolve around printing fancy gadgets. However, researchers at Carnegie Mellon are expanding the application of 3-D printing technology into the realm of prosthetics by partnering with e-NABLE, a global network of passionate volunteers who use their 3-D printers, design skills, and personal time to create free 3-D-printed prosthetic hands for those in need.

Founded in 2013, the organization has satisfied more than 1,500 requests for assistive devices, but the number of requests is growing beyond e-NABLE’s ability. To ease the short supply tension, HCII professors Jennifer Mankoff and Scott Hudson have teamed up with e-NABLE on a project entitled “Revolutionizing Assistive Devices Via Distributed Innovation, Fabrication and Refinement” to find ways to make the customization, production, and distribution of these 3-D-printed assistive devices more efficient and effective.

According to the project description, “The research will focus on three specific aspects of DIY-AT (do-it-yourself assistive technologies): developing algorithms that improve how makers create computationally customizable physical devices; creating virtual service teams that allow multiple stakeholders to work together smoothly across ability levels and geographic distance to solve bigger, more complex problems; and studying the specific needs of clinical expert participation in assistive technology creation and provision, with the hope of revolutionizing the process.”

e-NABLE consists of over 3,600 members all over the world including engineers, prosthetists, artists, 3-D printing experts, philanthropists, and students. They aim at providing free service for those who can’t afford a professionally made assistive body part. According to e-NABLE, a professionally made, muscle-actuated hand can cost between $6,000 and $10,000, with much of the cost coming from the materials and parts alone. But a 3-D-printed hand assembled by e-NABLE volunteers only incurs about $20 to $50 in material costs for a hand device and $50 to $150 for one arm designs.

e-NABLE also works to design unique prosthetics for individual users. For example, they created a bow holder for a girl born without fingers that allowed her to play her viola. Most e-NABLE hand users are children, so the prosthetics are often developed to serve the purpose of riding bikes, throwing a ball with the dog, swimming, and other activities.

e-NABLE works as a mostly web-based service; there are databases of existing designs and a handful of guidelines that make the process easy and accessible. Users submit requests online with a provided guideline and pictures of their body parts that needs assistive technology. After receiving the request, volunteers help select a suitable design for each user, print, and assemble the 3-D-printed parts, and send the parts to the user.

Since resources are limited, and 3-D printing usually takes a long time, there is still much room for improvement. “We are trying to change the way 3-D modeling happens so we can make it easier for people who are not highly trained while still ensuring high quality results,” Mankoff said. “We are trying to understand how to make 3-D modeling a process that can more easily be driven by requests, that supports testability and quality control, and that is modular.”

The team is working to improve their process by incorporating a research paper Mankoff published that explores three attachment techniques of 3-D printing: print-over, print-to-affix, and print-through. Researchers hope to develop a software that allows users to import a 3-D item and click on where they want to add an attachment, such as a handle, and then let the system do rest of the work to make the design happen.

In addition, since most e-NABLE volunteers need to work in teams to perform different tasks, but can’t meet physically, building more effective teams is crucial to improve communication and collaboration.

Another HCII professor, Robert Kraut, will lead a section of research on “how open-source communities use information to improve processes to the maker community.”

“The goal is to improve the efficiency of building a customer prosthetic device for a particular recipient by allowing multiple people to contribute different skills in measuring, building and fitting the device, while still presenting a single point of contact for recipients and their caregivers,” Kraut said.

Hopefully by 2040, the process will become quicker and more effective to allow more people to benefit from 3-D-printed technology. “This project is trying to create a capability to create real-world objects that serve real-world needs without requiring the level of expertise that’s currently required — making it easier to make things that matter and that particularly help people with disabilities,” Mankoff said.

The project aims not only at making assistive devises, but also aims at revolutionizing how computers can better serve humanity. “For now it’s prosthetics, but I hope that eventually we can move beyond that,” Mankoff said.