International School of Kenya: Using 3D Printer to Create Prosthetic Hands
Posted: 31 July 2018
Inspired by their investment in a new 3D printer, and having explored its many uses, students at the International School of Kenya taught themselves how to print 3D prosthetic hands. Maciej Sudra, one of the faculty leaders of the project, shares details on what it takes to produce a prosthetic hand, how they overcame concerns about the environmental impact of plastic waste, and the impact the project has made on patients and students.
Author and position: Maciej Sudra, Design Teacher
School: The International School of Kenya is a co-educational day and boarding school based on the outskirts of Nairobi. Its 900 students come from more than 70 countries.
The school had recently invested in a new 3D printer which sparked the students’ curiosity to find out how the technology could be used. They came across a news report about a project in the US called e-NABLE. Through a community of global volunteers, e-NABLE shares open source designs for prosthetic hands, arms and fingers allowing those with access to a 3d printer to create prosthetic limbs. The students asked if we could support the cause right here in Kenya.
As with many health conditions in Kenya, the medical need far outweighs the resources available and in the case of prosthetic limbs, the resources that are available are often very basic and expensive. A 3D printed limb offers a cheaper option for those in need and one that could also be designed and tailored to their needs.
With a core team of four students, myself as a design teacher and a physics teacher, we began the project by visiting a local hospital’s paediatric prosthetic unit to look at the equipment they give to patients and to speak to a specialist technician to understand more about the existing prosthetic resources and process for fitting them. We were aware of the hospital’s work from the school’s partnership with another charity, Operation Smile. Our links with the hospital would also enable us to identify patients who might benefit from our prosthetic limbs.
We then formalised our working group giving it the name ‘Hand Out’, and chose to focus on assembling 3D printed prosthetic hands for individuals in underprivileged communities who need them.
We organised the student group by giving those students with experience in 3d printing the role of leaders, encouraging them to share their knowledge with others in the group. We arranged to meet weekly, at flexible times (in breaks, after school) to continue the printing, look at the assembly and consider ways we could improve our prototypes.
The production process began with the sourcing of materials to create our prosthetic hand. The materials we needed included filament for the 3D printer, adhesive foam, dental rubber bands, velcro straps, silicon fingertips, braided fishing line, screws.
While obtaining some of the materials in Kenya was quite a challenge, we managed to obtain most of what we needed through friends of friends and word of mouth (little to no information about local products is available online). With some of the materials being less common, the cost was also high. The Round Square Anniversary Challenge assisted with some of these costs but student and teacher members of the group also gave personal donations.
Based on the CAD designs received from e-NABLE, we then spent a long time prototyping our prosthetic hands trying different resolutions, densities and materials. During this process, we were acutely aware that we were producing many plastic prototypes. We thought about the issues around plastic waste and considered whether our plastic hand prototypes could be produced in a way which would have minimal impact on the environment. We looked for recyclable/reusable filament unceasingly until we found much cheaper, locally created 3D printers. The printers use recycled plastic, which meant that whilst its quality was not good enough to be used for the final prosthetic hand, it could be used for the numerous prints done during the prototyping phase. This not only reduced the use of plastic but also reduced the financial cost of production, allowing us to stretch our resources further.
We finally succeeded in printing and assembling a functional test hand. This hand was reviewed by representatives of the e-NABLE community to ensure that it passed guidelines on quality, safety and utility.
Working with the local hospital, we identified a donor for our first 3D hand, a five-year-old boy who lost his hand when it got stuck in a piece of machinery. We took a cast of his other hand using a dental moulding agent. From that, we created a plaster of paris mould. The printer than scanned this mould which in addition to further measurements provided by us, created the prosthetic hand itself.
Alongside this work, another group of students are looking at ways to enhance the prosthetic hand, for example, they are examining ways to add a simple flashlight to the hand. As our donor lives in a rural area, there is often limited light at night, so this addition will hopefully make his new limb even more useful to him.
We are also continuing our efforts to reduce the environmental impact of our production methods. We partnered with another club in the school – “Construction by Design” to work on ways to recycle the plastic prototypes we produce, for example, by using the laser cutter to reuse the plastic in another way or by melting scrap plastic and threading it back into filament.
- Managing the workload – With just a small group of students involved, it was often difficult to get the students to meet at the same time due to their busy, conflicting school schedules. To overcome these challenges, we maintained a progress log to avoid tasks being done twice, and help those unable to attend keep up with the progress of those present. The log also aids in our reflection so we can refer back to what we have done and what the results have been.
- Manging costs – Materials were often expensive and difficult to source. We tried to overcome this by working through personal networks to find out the best sources for materials and achieve discounts wherever possible. Our investment in a locally made e-Waste 3D printer helped us save resources by enabling us to streamline our manufacturing and assembling process.
- Educating ourselves about production methods – We faced a steep learning curve in understanding how to make 3D printing prosthetic hands. We conducted online research, asked questions on forums related to prosthetic designs as well as consulting local experts who design prosthetic devices.
The most remarkable part of the endeavour is getting the hand to an individual who needs it. The prosthetic hand is fundamentally just a piece of plastic, unless it has a role in someone’s day to day life, ultimately making their life better. Thus far, it has been a truly fulfilling experience interacting with individuals from all walks of life!
Paul is actively using his hand at home and in school. His parents say it has changed his life and are very grateful. He can now pick up objects, and even a ride a bike, which he was not able to do before. We will continue to work with him and try and improve his new hand based on feedback
The project is an authentic example of the design cycle in action. Students conduct research, are involved in designing, prototyping and testing a product and are now modifying their design based on user feedback. In addition, the students are hopefully realising their potential to give back to the community.
We have promoted the project within the school through articles in the school newsletter and by creating a website to raise money for materials. The project’s success has been shared at board meetings and we are pleased to see a rise in interest among the students themselves – there are a lot of students interested in signing up next year. The public perception of the school has improved due to the publicity the project has created.
We hope to increase the number of students participating in our club to produce more prosthetic hands, and do so faster. Having additional ‘helping hands’ also means that we’ll be better equipped to host events and activities at school and in the local community in order to help raise funds and create awareness. In expanding our operations, we hope to tap into students’ passion for technology, engineering and service, enabling us to engage a broad community of students with different talents and skills.
- Start small – We started with a group of four dedicated students and one recipient. We wanted to make sure he was happy with the design before we accepted new recipients.
- Be prepared to make modifications – Also, be aware that even though the components to design the prosthetics are open source, there is a lot of modification and redesigning that needs to happen in order for the prosthetic to work properly. Be ready to iterate and prototype! We used the time after school to do this.
- Consider how the partnership will work with the recipient – Try and find a recipient who lives closer to the school. Our recipient, Paul, had to go on a five hour journey to visit us which made testing harder. On a related note, I wish we had started user testing earlier. We wanted to build the perfect hand before letting our first recipient test it. We could have benefited by starting the testing a lot earlier, even with an incomplete hand. We are now experimenting with augmenting our prosthetic, for example, integrating a torch into the hand. Many rural homes in Kenya do not have power and we believe this could be very useful.