Prosthetic Limbs: 3D Printers Making Superhero Hands for Children

Release Date
March 30, 2016



3D printers have paved the way for digital humanitarians. Now volunteers can make Superhero Hands for children all over the world. Watch more Learn Liberty videos on the frontiers of health care technology, policy, and entrepreneurship.
Volunteers around the world are designing and 3D printing “superhero” hands for kids with limb differences or missing fingers.
The hands are free. The designs are crowdsourced. And they’re often customized to match the individual kids’ favorite superheroes.
It all works without any central plan or grand government program. This is an inspiring story of spontaneous order at its best.
Could this open-source approach to medicine, done online and unregulated by governments, create innovation in other sectors of health care?
To give or receive help with hands, go to e-NABLE’s website:

Prosthetic Limbs: How You Can Build Prosthetics for Children (video): Learn more about how to become involved with eNABLE, and help make prosthetics for children.
Permissionless Innovation (book): Adam Thierer explains how if the “precautionary principle” (the idea that innovators should be forced to seek the approval of public officials) trumps “permissionless innovation” (the concept that innovators should generally be free to experiment with new technologies and business models) the result will be fewer services, lower-quality goods, higher prices, diminished economic growth, and a decline in the overall standard of living.
America’s Health Care System (online program): In this Learn Liberty On Demand program, distinguished scholars break down the problems with America’s health care system, look at what has caused these problems, and propose what we can do to produce better health for more people at lower cost, year after year.

>> I see myself as a cyborg. I started thinking of myself as a cyborg I guess when I started wearing mechanical hand there. Having that human-machine hybrid. At least when I think of a cyborg, I imagine someone who spends a large part of their time dedicated to repairing and upgrading themselves.
The more I get into this cyborg thing, the more I start to see technology as a way to achieve our best self. It’s not about becoming some kind of universal ideal here. It’s about becoming your own ideal, what you feel you should be. When I was growing up, if I ever told you that I couldn’t do something, it was mostly just because I didn’t want to.
Most of the problems that I had, due to my limb difference, was mostly due to social issues. I was kind of a small kid anyway growing up, and kind of a geeky one, and then on top of that, I was the kid with a funny hand. And I ended up getting picked on a lot.
And when I first heard about this hand from my dad, I thought it was just the coolest thing ever. Occasionally, he’ll have some really out there, crazy idea that I’m a little skeptical of, but this time, I didn’t need any convincing. I mean, how much convincing do you need to give someone a robot arm?
>> I didn’t really know what I’d be making with a 3D printer. Up until I saw the video of little boy in South Africa, named Liam, who through the wonders of 3D printing, had received a mechanical hand. A couple guys had developed the design, and we were able to download the design and decided to post it and share it.
Share the design. So that summer, which was the summer of 2013, we assembled our own device. So we solved a couple of problems differently, in our own way. We were able to put together a hand that worked pretty well. It was really cool but it wasn’t all that useful yet.
I was breaking fingers. It was uncomfortable, not very strong. So it was really that ability, that freedom, to play with it and modify it and upgrade it, that allowed us to get to where we are today. No two hands are the same. A limb difference, and they really are all different.
This one’s mine. I got kind of an ideal candidate for this. I’ve got most of a palm, fully working wrist, and it fits this design pretty well. This is not always the case. There’s a lot of variation. There’s sometimes the question as to whether someone has enough wrist to use one.
It’s not a one size fits all. There’s a lot of work that goes into making the hands work well with the particular user. Just recently, we’ve been working with a children’s hospital and Marvel Comics to give kids some superhero hands. We’ve been working on the Spiderman hands down in the shop.
>> It’s really cool to be making superhero hands for kids. There’s a certain beauty in the device not looking like a human. Cuz if it looks like a human hand, it looks kinda creepy, but also it covers up the limb difference. And what this does is it makes it special.
It helps the children to own their difference. I think it’s great that they ask me to do the Spiderman hands, cuz Spiderman’s always been my favorite. My name is John Schull. My current position is research scientist in MAGIC. That’s RIT Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity in Rochester.
And I am founder of e-NABLE, a global network of volunteers using 3D printers to make prosthetic hands and give them away for free.
>> You say I don’t give up.
>> No, you don’t give up.
>> Okay.
>> When I saw that video, I realized that there was an opportunity to piggy back as that video went viral.
And I added a comment to the YouTube videos, in which I said if you have a printer and want to help put yourself on this map, and if you need a hand, put yourself on this map. I’d made a Google Map mash-up where people could just add pins with their names on them.
And that was enough to propose or pretend that people would start signing up, self-organizing and mass fabricating, free prosthetics for each other. And unusually enough, it actually started to happen. Within six weeks, there were 70 people on the map. And of course they didn’t just self-organize, they started calling me and so now what do we do?
And I had no idea, but we created a Google Plus community and it’s been growing by about 1 or 2% per week ever since. And we’re off and running.
>> My daughter and I first heard about e-NABLE, when we were in Novel Labs in Virginia. We were playing with the lasers, and we saw that there were fingers being printed on a 3D printer, and asked questions about that.
And those guys told us about e-NABLE, and what they were doing, it just sounded to good to be true. And then we took that back to our scout troop, and told them what was happening. And there were so many families that wanted to get involved that they actually went to e-NABLE’s conference.
It was called Prosthetists Meet Printers. And it was at Johns Hopkins Hospital. It was an incredibly informative conference. And we gathered there and decided after hearing what our advisors had to say there, that this was something that we could really engage the youth in as a global service project.
My daughter has a really wonderful interest in stem, and to give her the opportunity to have real hands-on experience, seem incredibly rare.
>> STEM, which is science, technology, engineering, and math, has always been a field that I found to be a lot of fun. It’s where I felt I work best.
This project has been a joy to work on. It was a whole new way to look at the world. This is a way that you can make a difference in people’s lives. In the local community, we’re able to work with kids up to 150 at a time at our huge workshops, and e-NABLE has shown me that there is an opportunity for me as a kid.
Just the fact that I am able to help lead others to better themselves and better others is kind of a huge part of my life, and it means a lot.
>> We also heard about a group called Communitere which sets up 3D printers as part of disaster response, and we thought to ourselves, there ought to be a way for those two to get together.
We got our first advisors on how to print, and we got our first medical advisor, Dr. Albert Chi. Then three weeks after that, he told us he was being deployed, and we had 48 days to learn how to 3D print, to learn how to print and assemble these devices.
We knew we were helping people who couldn’t print for themselves. Tonight in the kitchen, we’re going to be dumping out all the sticky hands and dusty hands that were assembled by Cub Scouts, and scrub them and dry them off. We’re going to check them to make sure that they operate smoothly and safely, and then we’re going to package them up and send them to the team in Haiti.
>> It’s a huge team effort, but I think it’s awesome. And it goes to show that kids, teenagers like me, anywhere really, given the right resources and people, can accomplish great things.
>> A lot of people want to learn what we’ve done and work with us. And together, we’re creating not only more devices, but more designs that will help these kids.
And it’s transformed the adults. It’s transformed these kids who went from some of them wondering if they mattered at all, to planning to be engineers and looking forward to a future where they made a difference. And the kids who thought that they weren’t gonna be able to use a limb are teaching us how to be better designers, because we’re listening to them as clients.
And its transformed what we’ve thought these devices were for. It’s really a form of self expression and it’s really been a very powerful message of hope. And its been a change in thinking. So its not really been about the hands. It’s been about changing the way we think people should help each other and how this could happen.