St. Michael's Student Uses 3-D Printer To Make Prosthetic Hands

Oct 6, 2016

A student at St. Michael’s College wants to give people a hand — literally. Kelsey Buchanan, a junior studying art and education, started making prosthetic hands this summer using 3-D printers at the St. Michael’s maker space.

The maker space is just what it sounds like: a space for making things. In addition to the 3-D printer, there’s a laser cutter, a vinyl cutter, sewing machines and a host of other arts and crafts supplies.

Before this summer, Kelsey had never actually used the maker space, let alone turned on a 3-D printer.

“It was a little daunting, as you can imagine,” she said. “However, I just jumped on and poured my heart and soul into it and I was able to figure how everything worked.”

In the middle of the maker space, two small, colored plastic hands sat on a table. Over the course of the summer, Kelsey had successfully constructed two prototype prosthetic hands.

The hands can’t do everything you’d expect a hand to do, Kelsey said, but they can be very helpful for children who might have only a partial hand, or no hand at all.

“They obviously don’t have the best mobility, because it is plastic and simple, but they have so many more opportunities that they otherwise would not have,” she said.

So how did this art and education major get into the business of crafting prosthetic hands? It started when one of her professors mentioned seeing videos of kids getting hands that were made using 3-D printers.

The professor suggested that someone try making a hand at St Michael’s maker space. Kelsey decided she’d give it a shot.

“My ultimate goal is to be an elementary school art teacher, so kids are what I’m passionate about. And I’ve always been passionate about helping people in different ways,” Kelsey said. “I’ve always felt I could do more.”

This project is part of a larger global community of makers called e-NABLING the Future.

Two prototype hands constructed by Kelsey Buchanan, who is planning on improving on the designs by using better materials to make the hands open and close more easily.
Credit Liam Connors / VPR

“e-NABLE is this weird amorphous grassroots community,” said Ivan Own, a fabricator, designer and volunteer for the e-NABLE community.

Own is also the co-creator of the first open-source, 3-D printed hand, though he’s quick to point out he didn’t found the e-NABLE community. Still, his work helped set the stage for bringing together this loose-knit but dedicated community.

According to e-Nable’s web site, there are over 8,000 members all around the world.

Like Kelsey, Ivan didn’t have his sights set on 3-D printing prosthetic hands. For him, it started with a large puppet hand he made for a steam-punk convention. A carpenter named Richard in South Africa, who was missing a finger, saw a video of Ivan’s puppet hand.

The Makerbot is one of the 3-D printers at the St. Michael's maker space. Kelsey Buchanan used it to print out all the plastic parts for one of her prototype prosthetic hands.
Credit Liam Connors / VPR

Richard asked if they could work together to make a prosthetic finger, and two began to collaborate online and tracked their progress through videos.

Their videos were found by the mother of a 5-year-old boy named Liam.

“Liam was born without any fingers on his right hand,” Ivan said. “So she kind of made the next leap and said, 'If you guys have made a finger, could you build an entire set?'"

After experimenting, Ivan and Richard realized that 3-D printing would be a fairly cheap way to create a hand for the boy because as he grew, they could easily resize and print out new versions of the hand.

After finishing the project, they posted the designs online and in the public domain.

“That way, anyone could do whatever they wanted to with it,” Ivan said. “There wasn’t a master plan or anything, it was just, 'Here’s this thing, let’s see what happens.'"

What happened was people started to tinker with and tweak the design, sharing new models and working together to improve on what Ivan had already done.

Groups formed in maker spaces to make hands and work to match them with people in need.

For Kelsey at St. Michael’s, the next step is to finish up her prototypes and send them off for a quality check. She says once her hands are checked by a “master maker,” she’ll look to not just lend a hand, but give one to a person that can really use it.

"We'd be able to mix and match colors ... Just little silly things. Like if the kid wanted a Batman hand, we could make yellow fingers and a black wrist.” - Kelsey Buchanan

“My ultimate goal is to have a child open up a hand on Christmas morning,” Kelsey said.

She also hopes to involve more students at St. Michael’s in her project, and she’s trying to organize a chapter of e-NABLING the Future on campus. She's also raising money to buy more materials and send the hands to recipients.

Kelsey is still tinkering with the prosthetic hand designs. She says she’s trying to find ways of adding different attachments such as a grip to make hold a painter brush easier, or just to make the hands look cooler.

“We’d be able to mix and match colors and things like that," Kelsey said. “Just little silly things. Like if the kid wanted a Batman hand, we could make yellow fingers and a black wrist.”