Some kids are born without fingers. UNCC students and 3D printers give them a grip.

UNC Charlotte students use 3D printing to give children a grip

The Helping Hand Project creates prosthetic hands for children at no cost to the kids or their families
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The Helping Hand Project creates prosthetic hands for children at no cost to the kids or their families

At least 125 children a year are born in the U.S. with missing fingers, a condition that students at UNC Charlotte are using digital technology to make better.

Students at UNCC and three other North Carolina schools use 3D printers to make plastic prostheses that give kids the ability to grasp objects. Commercial versions cost $10,000 to $15,000. The students make them for a few bucks and give them away free.

Twenty-eight children, more than half from the Carolinas but from as far as Texas and Washington state, have received new hands or arms since the Helping Hand Project launched at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015.

Last week at UNCC, 7-year-old Joel Payne of Statesville grinned in triumph as he flexed his new “super hero arm.” Joel, whose left arm ends a few inches below his elbow, went home with a second, keepsake arm signed by running back Jonathan Stewart and other Carolina Panthers.

Joel became the fourth child to get an arm made by the UNCC chapter that formed earlier this year. The devices offer physical and emotional benefits.

Joel Payne, 7, fist-bumps Helping Hand Project founder Jeff Powell, founder of The Helping Hand Project, after receiving his new 3D-printed arm last week. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

“It’s a real big confidence booster for a lot of these kids. It gives them something to get excited about – they get a cool robot arm,” said UNCC graduate student Jeff Powell, who founded the Helping Hand Project as an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill. “It brings them joy and serves as an icebreaker for kids at school. By introducing their limb difference in a positive way, it helps them bring it up rather than be shy about it.”

Powell was studying biomedical engineering in Chapel Hill when a professor put him in touch with the parents of a local boy who was missing fingers on his left hand. The connection was a good fit – Powell, 25, plans to go to medical school and enjoys working with kids and people with “unique situations.”

The eastern North Carolina native spent a summer learning 3D printing. He found prosthetic designs online and fashioned his first prosthetic hand. The devices attach to the forearm. Strings pull their fingers and thumb closed when the wearer bends his elbow.

“I saw what it meant to (the boy) and his parents,” Powell said. But he also found there was no good way to get the devices to other kids who need them. So he started the Helping Hand Project.

A dose of confidence

UNC-Chapel Hill students now make prosthetic hands for children born with functional wrists. N.C. State University’s chapter specializes in difficult cases. Durham Technical Community College also has a chapter.

UNCC students focus on making prosthetic arms for kids like Joel. More than 100 students have joined the chapter, and about 30 are active. The chapter raised $6,500 this fall, exceeding its $5,000 fundraising goal.

Students are drawn to the technology involved and are still young enough to relate to the children they will benefit, said assistant biology professor Richard Chi, the chapter’s adviser. Chi is a cell and molecular biologist whose own 11-month-old son was born without a left hand and wrist.

Richard Chi, a UNCC biologist who is advisor to the school’s Helping Hand Project chapter, fits a 3D-printed arm to 7-year-old Joel Payne. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

“I think it’s the fact that (students) can positively impact a child’s life within a matter of days or weeks, with their own two hands, but without special training or multiple years at school,” Chi said. “They also get the satisfaction of seeing the impact very soon.”

Students, in turn, learn digital fabrication – the term for making physicals object from digital models. The work is done at UNCC’s Makerspace lab, which opened about a year ago and is outfitted with 3D scanners and printers, laser cutters, sewing machines and circuit board makers.

“Makerspace is a room with machines, but it’s also a community of people,” manager Johanna Okerlund, a PhD student in the College of Computing and Informatics, says in a video UNCC produced. “Some people see this space as a place to play and tinker. Some people see it as a place to express themselves. Some people see it as a place to help people, and the Helping Hand Project is a project that helps people very directly.”

Students go online to get open-source designs for prosthetic arms. They then use 3D printers, which build objects by adding layers of material, to make parts they assemble. It costs only $10 to $20 to make each device, mostly for the plastic filament that is melted to create it, but the process can still take weeks or months.

Social aspects are an important part of the project, Chi said. Many of the children it helps may never have met another child with similar limb differences. The project holds family events each spring and fall, flying in children so they can meet each other.

Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart credits his wife with bringing the project, which uses 3D printers to create artificial hands for kids, to his attention.

Because of their expense and need to be frequently replaced, Chi said, most children had previously been fitted with non-functional cosmetic prostheses or learned to function without one. Even now, Joel won’t likely use his new arm all the time.

“But we give them a little more self confidence when they can go to school with a Panther arm,” Chi said.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender