Delta Middle School puts out a helping hand

By Pat Sunderland

Using about nine bucks worth of materials, technology students at Delta Middle School tapped into the potential of 3D printing to produce a prosthetic hand for a fellow classmate.

"We've only had this 3D printer for about a month, but the kids are already doing amazing things with it," said their teacher, James Hughes.

Hughes taught on a remote Alaska island before joining the DMS staff last fall. A friend in Utah introduced him to the world of 3D printing. The friend was helping his son with an Eagle Scout project that involved the building of prosthetics through a global network called "Enabling the Future." According to its website, Enabling the Future is a volunteer network of digital humanitarians who are using their 3D printers, design skills and personal time to create free 3D printed prosthetic hands for those in need, with the goal of providing them to underserved populations around the world.

When Hughes learned DMS had an opportunity to get a 3D printer, he contacted Enabling the Future for more information. "I was particularly interested, because we had a student with a need and I thought it would be awesome to help him out."

The student, seventh grader Fernando Santillan, was born without a thumb or fingers on one hand. Fernando is an avid soccer player who has never let his physical disability affect his desire to participate in sports and learn to play the guitar and drums.

The prosthetic hand is simply a tool that can help him pick up a cup of water or grasp a small object.

The basic design is available free of charge from Enabling the Future. "We tricked it out a bit," Hughes said. He holds up the hand, which was printed in three pieces. "We're working on this one to make the fingers bigger, to make the grip better."

Foam cushioning, a Velcro strap, 100-pound fishing line and a rubber band cord -- to bring the fingers back -- were all that were needed to finish the hand. Hughes said two hands were actually made for Fernando, one being a bit larger for him to grow into.

The action of bending his wrist forward causes the fingers of the prosthetic to close around an object, Hughes explained. The fingers do not move individually -- they have a simple basic grasping function. Because Fernando has never had to flex his wrist muscle, occasional adjustments must be made to the tension as that muscle strengthens.

"These devices should be seen as tools and not a fully functional prosthetic device," e-NABLE cautions. "Children use them for simple tasks like holding water bottles while being able to hold a snack in their other hand at the same time, helping to give them balance by allowing them to use two hands to ride a bike or swing on the swings, and other simple tasks that having two hands is helpful for."

Hughes explains that once the prototype developed by DMS has been approved, the school can become a certified provider of prosthetic hands for children in need around the world.

One student decided to use the concept to make a prosthetic leg for his friend's three-legged dog. The eighth grader looked online to come up with the design for the leg, with a bracket to mount the leg to the dog's hip.

The design process begins on the computer, using a softwater program called Blender. In addition to 3D applicatons, the computer graphics software can be used for creating animated films and visual effects. The possibilities are exciting for Hughes and his students.

"Anything you can imagine, these kids can create," he said.

The printer itself cost just over $2,000, Hughes said. He likens it to a "really expensive hot glue gun."

The computer file developed by the student is loaded into the printer. Plastic filament is heated to 240° Celsius, then forced through an extruder onto the bed of the printer. The plastic firms up quickly, so as the design is built in layers, it retains its shape. The printer has three different speed settings, with the slowest speed offering the greatest detail. Once finished, the extruder returns to its home position. Hughes slides off the finished project and removes the plastic support structure.

Almost all of the parts on the 3D printer were themselves fabricated, in Colorado, from a 3D printer. "I have the files," Hughes said. "I could print all the parts again."

He is teaching his eighth grade students how to load and calibrate the 3D printer, so they can share their expertise at the high school next year.

"These kids can do so much with this technology," he said. "The excitement will just continue to build."

With technology moving at a rapid pace, Hughes said it's possible users of all ages may soon be able to print 3D images from their smart phones.