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3D Printing Makes Prosthetic Hands Available to Children in Wisconsin & Around the World

Ann-Elise Henzl
Ranee Stollenwerk (left) and her daughters, Myla and Shea

A lab at UW-Milwaukee began creating 3D-printed hands after a girl asked for one for Christmas.

The girl is Shea Stollenwerk of Mukwonago, who’s now in fourth grade. She was born with one fully-formed hand, and one with no fingers.

Shea’s mom Ranee says Shea learned to do just about everything, without wanting an artificial hand. Then she changed her mind about a year and a half ago, after discovering a YouTube video of a boy using a 3D printed prosthetic hand.

“She’d seen this and thought, ‘hey, maybe I could grab stuff with that hand that I can’t do now,’” Ranee says.

The plastic hand looked sort of like a robot’s hand or the hands of the comic book character Iron Man. The prosthetic hand opened and closed, allowing the user to grip items. Ranee says Shea was hooked.

“She put it on her Christmas list and we weren’t sure Santa could make something like that, so we decided to see what we could find out online,” Ranee says.

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl
Shea’s hand was the first made by a lab at UW-Milwaukee

Ranee’s search led her to a lab at UWM, which uses 3D printers. Within a couple weeks, it made Shea’s first prosthetic hand. She puts it on by peeling back velcro straps and sliding the device over her wrist. She secures the straps. Then, she can move her wrist to make the fingers on the hand open and close.

Shea says the hand makes it easier for her to cook. When she makes pizza, she can grip the olives that she slices. Her mom says that was a bit of a precarious proposition before Shea got the hand. And Shea has started taking viola lessons, using a second prosthetic device the UWM lab printed for her.

“There’s a different thing that I use that doesn’t really have fingers and has a bump sticking out, so I can put my bow inside and then I just move my wrist back and forth,” Shea says.

Shea only wears her prosthetic hand for certain activities, so she doesn’t always have it on at school. When she uses it, she gets reactions.

“A lot of people think it’s really cool, because I guess they’ve never really seen anything 3D printed before, so it’s kind of, like, new,” Shea says.

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl
UWM arts professor Frankie Flood and his students collaborate on efforts to make 3D-printed hands for people around the world who don’t have access to high-tech prosthetic models

So new, in fact, that Shea’s hand was the first UWM professor Frankie Flood’s lab made. He says he collaborated online over the miles with people in other states who were making the hands. Flood and his students printed each part individually, then connected the pieces.

“We have a gauntlet section (which) is what we call the back portion that attaches near the wrist. We have the palm section that actually envelops the affected hand, and then we have the fingers and phalanges that actually attach. And eventually, it’s all put together and it’s strung with window shade cord and also stretchy bracelet string like from like a craft store, and that gives a spring-back to the fingers,” Flood says.

Flood says the hands are a far cry from high-tech prosthetic models. His only allow for a simple open-and-close motion. Yet flood says they fill a void.

“A lot of our children like it because it gives them counter-balance, like if they want to ride a scooter – a push scooter – if they want to be able to pick up their doll or a ball or anything like that, it’s a great device for that,” Flood says.

Flood says the speed and cost associated with manufacturing a 3D printed hand makes the devices more accessible to many children.

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl
A variety of 3D-printed hands on display outside Frankie Flood’s lab

“It’s usually around $25 in materials, maybe $25 in labor. It takes about 12 hours to print a complete hand. The fact that a child can put this on and wear it for a period of time, and if it breaks, no big deal. If they outgrow it, no big deal. We just scale a new hand and print it,” Flood says.

Because 3D printed hands are so affordable, Flood’s lab and others around the world have been printing hands for needy children, for free. A group called e-NABLE, which coordinates the efforts, says children in more than 30 countries have received about 15-hundred hands, in the last couple of years.


A visit to the UWM lab, which prints 3D-printed hands and other items

3D printers create three-dimensional items, out of melted plastic. UW-Milwaukee arts professor Frankie Flood teaches the technology in the Digital Craft Research Lab in the Peck School of the Arts. He says a lot of people think the devices are mysterious, until they see them. Flood says a demonstration shows that 3D printers basically draw a design – one layer atop another.

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl
The 3D printers at UWM squirt out one thin line of plastic on top of another, until a three-dimensional object has taken shape

The 3D printers in his lab are about the size of a standard home printer. Arms inside the lab’s printers go back and forth in jerky motions, using melted plastic to sketch out shapes onto a sheet of glass.

“It’s really just drawing with a melted filament, so there’s a filament strand that comes on a spool and it runs into a device that’s called a hot end, but it’s basically like a hot glue gun,” Flood says.

The hot end squirts one layer of plastic, then the next atop the first, then another – up to several dozen layers for an object that’s about ½” thick when it’s complete.

“So each layer, each slice, is a single drawing. Then when you stack all of those drawings together, it creates a three-dimensional object,” Flood says.

Students have programmed one printer to make an item that a local company will use. What’s taking shape is a bright orange plastic rectangle, about half the size of a deck of cards.

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl
A completed housing for a sensor for Rexnord

“It’s going to be a housing for a sensor for Rexnord Corporation. This particular device is for a flush sensor for a toilet, actually,” Flood says.

The 3D printer completes the job in less than an hour. After a few minutes, the object has cooled, and students can gently pry it from the glass. The printer can immediately begin making another.

Flood says speed is one of the technology’s attributes.

“There’s no tooling cost, you don’t have to make a mold…to get a three-dimensional object. It’s a huge cost and time saver,” Flood says.

Flood says the 3D printing technology doesn’t just appeal to people who are mechanically-minded. Arts majors take his classes, alongside those studying engineering. Some of his students are printing parts to build new 3D printers. One student is making a 3D printer that will extrude clay, to make pottery.

Flood says people are still discovering all they might do with 3D printers. One thing he likes most about the technology is its adaptability. The printers can make items, like the prosthetic hands, “to order.”

“It allows us to create one-of-a-kind objects that are specialized, that are to the specific needs and requirements of an individual, and that’s something we’ve never seen in manufacturing,” Flood says.

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl
Students in the UWM lab have made 3D-printed busts of themselves

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.
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