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Superheroes Meet the 3D Printer Prosthetic Hand

By Shlomo Maital    

  Cyborg Beast

   A year ago, I blogged about Daniel Omar, South Sudan,  and his 3D prosthetic arm, created by an American startup called Not Impossible Labs, founded by Mike Ebeling. Ebeling found a way to create inexpensive functional prosthetic arms for Sudanese children badly wounded in the Sudanese civil war, by using 3D printers and teaching locals how to use them to ‘print’ arms. 

   Today, the New York Times,  “Making the Hand of a Super Hero”, by Jacqueline Mroz,  reports that another online volunteer group, E-nable, founded by Dr. Jon Schull, “matches [American] children in need of prosthetic hands and fingers with volunteers able to make them on 3-D printers.”  Designs are downloaded onto the machines at no charge.   Charity indeed begins at home.  These prosthetic limbs cost as little as $20 to $30, a fraction of the cost of conventional prosthetics, and they work just as well. 

    And the neatest part?  The limbs are designed to look like, say, limbs from Transformers or Cyborg superheroes.  The photo shows Cyborg Beast, a prosthetic hand that could well be one used by superhero Steve Austin, the bionic man.  Rather than try to hide or disguise them, they are in bright fluorescent colors and scream, ‘hey look at me!  I’m cool!’.     The prosthetic hands say,  I’m not disabled, I’m actually, well, kind of a superhero.  And “transformer” is the right word – the printed hands transform a disability into a superhero cool device.   

     Some of the statistics that demonstrate need are shocking.  Some 9,000 American kids receive amputations yearly just as a result of lawn mower accidents alone, and one in 1,000 infants is born with missing fingers. 

      We’re still waiting for 3D printing to change our lives. Meanwhile, good people have discovered a wonderful use for them.   As always, the best ideas are always the simplest.    

The Daniel Arm:   Act! Don’t Just Fret!

By Shlomo  Maital

 Daniel Omar

Daniel Omar (right) and his 3D Printed Prosthetic Arm

   In our new book The Imagination Elevator,  the first of 10 key principles for structured creativity is this:   Act, Don’t Just Gripe.  Take action to right a wrong, rather than just talk about it – at least some of the time.

  Writing in The Guardian, Jan. 19,  Emma Bryce recounts how Mike Ebeling, a Los Angeles resident and entrepreneur, did just this. 

     As the  founder of an American startup called Not Impossible Labs, an organisation that builds open-access devices to assist people facing seemingly insurmountable physical challenges,  Ebeling recounts how TIME magazine wrote about Daniel Omar, South Sudan, who in March 2012, at the age of 14, “embraced a tree trunk to shield himself from a bomb’s blow, and stepped away without his hands. Aware of the burden he would place on his family, in 2012 Omar told a Time reporter that he would rather have died when the government’s Antonov aircraft dropped its lethal cargo.”   [This brings to mind the current Syrian Government’s policy of dropping oil drums filled with explosives on civilian buildings in Aleppo, killing thousands].   

    Seeing this declaration on paper shocked Mick Ebeling.    Ebeling read this and thought,  “I’ve got three little boys…   It was hard for me to read a story about a young boy who had lost his arms.”

    Here is what he did, according to Bryce.    “In November 2013, Ebeling travelled to Sudan for a month, hoping to find Daniel and build him an arm. He took with him printers, spools of plastic and cables. The 3D printers that create the prosthetic’s plastic parts make the device seem hi-tech, but the resulting arm is really just a simple, mechanical device. The arm works by using movement to trigger cables, threaded throughout the plastic structure like ligaments. When the user flexes and bends the remaining portion of their arm, this motion tenses the cables, which in turn curl and uncurl the fingers at the tip.”

      “Since Ebeling has returned home, one prosthetic a week has been printed, thanks to two 3D printers he left behind. The machines sit humming industriously – mostly at night when it’s cool enough for them to work. The printed parts are then collected by eight local people trained to operate the machines, assemble the arms, and customize them for recipients.”

     Ebeling identified an unmet need, one he was passionate about; thought creatively about simple, inexpensive solutions (the prosthetic arm costs a total of $100, a fraction of conventional prosthetics),  and took action, getting on a plane and going to the site.  

    If only more of us would do the same. 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital