3D Printers Revolutionizing Prosthetic Making

May 2, 2014

Credit http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com

3D printers are making a splash in the world of prosthetics. Those who can’t afford the traditional devices are getting a chance to try a cost-effective alternative. This emerging technology is helping a northern Illinois family.

This Friday is a big day for Kylie Wicker. When you ask her about what’s going to happen, her little face lights up with a big smile. She then rattles off a list of things she likes to do at school that will soon become easier to do.

“I could probably draw a little easier with it, write my name a little easier, and do the [monkey] bar a little easier,” Wicker said.

The “it” she’s referring to is a prosthetic hand made from a 3D printer. This 9-year-old from Roscoe has a left hand that has no fingers that extend outward. Her mother Sharon says it’s something she was born with.

“It pretty much is from a lack of blood flow. It prevented the hand from growing fully,” Sharon Wicker said.

After getting used to life without a fully grown left hand, Kylie Wicker will soon say goodbye to many of the inconveniences caused by this birth defect. On this Friday, she will formally receive the 3D prosthetic hand made by students at Boylan High School in Rockford.

Reflecting on the years leading up to this moment, Sharon Wicker says the inconveniences haven’t been the big problem.

“She pretty much finds a way to do everything. What was more frustrating was the staring [by other people], the little comments. It was starting to get to her. That’s what made us search,” Sharon Wicker said.

Kylie Wicker
Credit Mike Moen

A traditional prosthetic hand can cost tens-of-thousands of dollars. That results in sticker shock for most people. Plus, there are the battles with insurance companies to get the necessary coverage. Experts say younger kids eventually outgrow them.

Deciding it may be better to seek out a standard device for Kylie down the road, her parents began searching for alternatives. They saw a video of a hand that came from a 3D printer. This prosthetic made of plastic parts can cost as little as five dollars. The discovery of the video prompted Jeromy Wicker to see if any area high schools had a 3D printer. After he reached out to Boylan, it took no time at all to learn that a prosthetic hand was being made for his daughter. Here’s how he describes it.

“Almost like Legos, with bolts and pins and cables,” Jeromy Wicker said.

The plastic fingers respond to wrist movement, giving Kylie Wicker a new way to perform tasks, along with a new lease on life.

Stories like this one are popping up all over the globe. Dr. Jon Schull is the creator of E-NABLE, an online global volunteer network for 3D printed prosthetics. He likes to tell the story of how this movement got started.

“A South African carpenter had an accident and cut his fingers off his hand. He found a prop-maker in Washington state and, together, they developed a 3D printable, mechanical hand,” Schull said.

That provided a blueprint for others to make new hands using 3D printers.

“Basically, it’s a glue gun connected to a robotic arm, and it just lays down layer-by-layer of material until it builds up a solid object,” Schull said.

Now, organizations and volunteers are helping create these devices for people who don’t have access to a standard prosthetic. Others benefiting from such devices include amputees from war-torn countries. Schull says a big challenge right now is coordinating efforts and collecting enough donations to meet the demand.

However, those challenges mean little right now to Kylie Wicker, who is simply happy to add to the list of things she’ll be able do with her new left hand.