How do you 3D print a prosthetic hand? Email Stephen…

31 Jul 2015

It’s generally accepted that 3D printing is, gradually, redesigning a growing number of production industries. However, when it come to prosthetics for kids, it has already surpassed all expectations.

There are 3D printed Knight Rider cars, impeccably remembered down to the last detail. Tortoise shells, saving injured animals from a world of pain. Supercars, rockets and bridges. The list goes on.

These are all amazing and fun, creative and clever. But there are some areas that 3D printing has started to alter that leave us truly amazed.

The incredible ‘Biopen’, for example, that can help surgeons ‘draw’ cells onto injured body parts. Bone filler, along the same premise, again astounding.

And finally children’s prosthetics, making life a whole lot easier for those unlucky youngsters suffering with deformed hands or feet.

What a story

Earlier this week the Irish news was filled with the incredible story of Josh McKenna, a Portarlington boy who became ‘Ireland’s first child with a 3D printed hand’ thanks to a charity called eNABLE.

The story was amazing, with Josh’s “terminator-style” hand making its grand entrance into his school when he strolled through the door, walked into his classroom and said “Hiya lads” with a wave.

As far as entrances go, it’s pretty cool.

There’s more to this story

However, behind the story comes the more wonderful reality. Firstly, Josh was Ireland’s second child with a 3D printed hand, first spot actually goes to a young girl from Cork.

Secondly, and more importantly, this charitable industry is thriving, with Ireland only belatedly getting on board.

Stephen Dignam is one of Ireland’s two 3D modellers working with eNABLE, seeing first-hand how much the rise in publicity surrounding his work is affecting people in need.

With a background in stage lighting design and interior architecture, Dignam bought a pretty good 3D printer a few years ago.

His original aim was to merely create a lighting project so, after starting with a humble little octopus – “just to get the calibration correct,” he assures me – he soon lost himself in a world of wonder.

A whole new world

Seeing all that the nascent 3D-printing world had to offer, he suddenly found himself “wanting to 3D print everything”.

“For instance, my barber, he can barely turn on a computer, but he came up with an idea for a specific comb,” laughs Dignam, who duly obliged. “When you first get into something you’re gobbling up any information you can get.”

In early 2014 he came across eNABLE, and became one of the few hundred members they had at the time.

“Yea, I basically saw what they did and saw my printer was pretty much as good. I thought ‘I can do this’ and, then… did.”

Now he’s listed as a 3D modeller, fabricator and designer on the charity’s site, with a new app on the way to make things easier for those looking for help.

A waiting game

Then he sat by the phone, waiting. “It wasn’t well known here so most of the stuff was happening in the US. Then it spread to the UK where I printed out a few hands and helped give people tips, and then suddenly a young girl from Cork was on the list.”

From there Dignam hasn’t looked back, with Josh’s creation, following a prosthetic arm for a child in Carrickfergus, the latest of his eNABLE projects.

The process is remarkably simple. If it’s a child who needs the hand then often it’s the parents reaching out. They supply details on the child’s limb – he explains that the child in question needs 3o0 of movement for it to work – as many photos as possible and Stephen gets to work.

He sends off an early 3D-printed prototype, the family respond with tips on where it pinches etc… and Stephen finalises what soon becomes the new hand.

3D printing a hand

Stephen’s calibration method for Josh’s 3D-printed hand

“It’s totally addictive,” he says of a process that takes just eight hours to print on his machine. “The first recipient and all her family were in tears,” he says.

“And all of a sudden I was the same, the expression on her face! You realise you’re working with a living being. The hand is an inanimate object but when you realise it’s more than that…”

3D printing: It’s not just for kids

It’s not just children either, with a man in the UK reaching out recently for an upgrade on a prosthetic he got through the NHS, according to Dignam.

“It was like a Victorian torture device,” he laughs. “That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it was a bit like a vice.”

So he got down to work and made something a hell of a lot cooler, as you can see below, which Dignam can do now purely because he made that decision two years ago to start on a 3D-printed lighting project.

How did that project go, exactly? “Oh… I’m still working on it.”

Before-after 3D printed hand

Stephen’s creation (below) is a marked improvement…

Main image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic