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Davidson student uses 3-D printing to build hand prosthetics

A Davidson College student’s drive to venture out of her comfort zone and into the daunting world of high tech is already making life more comfortable and full for some children with hand abnormalities. She’s also playing a role in a technology trend that could change the prosthetics industry.

Claire Gutermuth had no formal tech training when she accepted a summer internship at the Tech Museum of Innovation in Silicon Valley. Within weeks, she was using 3-D modeling and 3-D printing to design and customize a prosthetic hand for a 9-year-old girl. Now, the 22-year-old senior psychology major is working on hands for a 4-year-old and 6-year-old, and has begun working on 3-D printing for lower limbs.

“I think I’m pretty creative,” she said. “Instead of art, I wanted to make things that were functional. I’ve always been oriented toward design, and I know that the Bay Area is full of new kinds of design-oriented tech companies.”

Gutermuth said her crash course in 3-D modeling was easily the hardest part of the adventure – a time-consuming, trial-and-error exercise aided by free online modeling programs and tutorials. She got the most help from E-nabling The Future, a growing global online community that uses 3-D printing technology to create free 3-D printed hands and arms for those in need.

Others have done 3-D printing in connection with prosthetics. “But what E-nabling The Future is doing is, it’s the only community that is actively developing these designs and open-sourcing them (making them freely available) – and then also having a group of volunteers who have 3-D printers who are willing to get the measurements from random people who have contacted them, print them out for free and just send them.”

Help for Ebba

Gutermuth’s learning curve was hastened by a little girl named Ebba, who was born with some fingers malformed and others missing. She was at the tech museum during a workshop after Gutermuth had modeled and printed out a hand for one of the exhibits.

“Her mom, I think, is an engineer, so they’ve always been into tech stuff,” Gutermuth said. “Ebba was on her way out and passed by the 3-D printer and saw the hand and asked my supervisor, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Oh, it’s a prosthetic hand. Let me show you.’ She kind of raised up her hand and said, ‘I want one.’ ”

The next day, Gutermuth took a plaster cast of Ebba’s hand and began to customize a prosthetic for her. After some refinements, she produced a hand for Ebba in September that she uses today. How long she can continue with it will depend on how fast she grows, Gutermuth said.

“The cool thing is that now that they’re so connected to the medium, they can (with her supervisor’s help) just go print out another one that’s slightly scaled up. One of the neat things about 3-D printing is that once you have something that works, it’s very easy to just modify the scale and the software.”

Before the 3-D printing, the artificial hand has to be designed and shaped – modeled. “The way I learned that is, I printed out a standard model for (Ebba) and fit it on her” after the initial casting and then made any needed adjustments.

In the modeling process, Gutermuth uses the aforementioned online help to draw on the knowledge and skills of people she has never met. In addition to E-nable, that involves free modeling programs such as Blender (for open-source 3-D graphics and animation software) and even YouTube tutorials on 3-D printing and 3-D imaging software. This makes problem-solving a little less intimidating.

The plastic benefit

Viewing the image she’s designed and constructed on her laptop screen, Gutermuth uses simple keystrokes to make the 3-D model bend, rotate or grow to shape pieces that print out to become fingers, thumbs, hands and forearms. She said the actual printing is the easiest part.

“The process of 3-D printing is actually very simple,” said Gutermuth, who had never used a 3-D printer until July. “I guarantee you, you could do it within 10 minutes. Everybody is very well acquainted with a 2-D printer. A 3-D printer is the exact same way, except instead of paper it works with plastic.”

The hand prosthetics aren’t completely made of plastic, though she said that’s the eventual goal. “We’re moving toward that. In the newest model, even the screws are plastic. But you still need elastic to create the action and tension within the finger. The model that I started on had a lot of hardware that you had to get from a hardware store, but within the E-nable community there are a lot of people who are constantly working on these designs.

“We’re trying to aim for complete printability so you don’t need any extra materials and you can just print it out.”

These production gains via the open-source 3-D design community have led to a device that’s much more affordable than standard prosthetics, potentially revolutionizing the field. Gutermuth said that because the hands are built mostly from plastic, they can be made for about $10 worth of plastic and $40 worth of hardware. Other prosthetics can range in price from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars.

A wider scope

Gutermuth’s excitement with the field has led her to begin working with a Charlotte-area prosthetist, with a goal of 3-D-printing lower limbs. “We don’t have a community that’s doing that quite yet,” she said.

“A lot of people learn how to adapt without an upper limb, but walking is pretty important. However, it’s a lot harder because if you’re putting your full weight on this device, it needs to be really comfortable and sturdy.  Lower limbs are a lot more involved. Part of it is, they’re more heavily regulated by the FDA because there’s more danger involved if whatever you create doesn’t work.”

Said her collaborator, Travis Owens with Owens Carolina: “The idea is that instead of using plaster to make a cast and things like that, we’re using scanners to create a model” for the lower limb. “The problem now is that the printers are a little bit slow.”

Many advantages are the same as those for hand prosthetics via 3-D modeling and printing: “If you want to collaborate with somebody else, it’s all on the file,” he said. “And if you have an amputee in a Third World country, instead of a prosthetist actually going there, you can just send a scanner and printer and in theory design their prosthesis from thousands of miles away.”

The latter fits in well with Gutermuth’s current independent study at Davidson, on low-cost prostheses and care for people with amputations in developing countries. She hopes her involvement with technology is even further-reaching.

“I’ve been looking at the assistive technology space in general and how technology can help people with disabilities – not necessarily just prosthetics, but people with hearing disabilities or communication disabilities. There’s a ton that technology can do that hasn’t even been done yet.”

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