Assistive Technology

Inexpensive Prosthetics for the Masses

Deb Miller Landau iQ Managing Editor

Daniel Hobbs practices Judo, plays soccer and basketball, rides his bike and swims. He lives in Spain, speaks fluent English and Spanish and is learning Portuguese. He’s an active 11-year-old whose smile lights up a room.

Daniel’s friends call him “Iron Man” because he wears a prosthetic on his left arm. Although he was born without a hand, he was born at the dawn of the 3D printing revolution, where technology is providing new ways to tackle life’s challenges.

“Daniel is a fighter,” said his mom, Abby. “He never gives up at anything. He’s absolutely determined.”

When Daniel was five months in utero, his parents got the crushing news that their son had a congenital malformation of his left limb. They were thankful, of course, that their son would be otherwise healthy, but knew their unborn baby would have challenges ahead.

Since age 7, Daniel has worn a prosthetic limb, which has helped him do a lot. It opens and closes (like a claw), but its abilities are limited.  The heavier medical-grade prosthetic is expensive because it must be constantly refitted to fit his growing body.

Last year, Intel teamed up with 3D Systems, a company that specializes in large-scale 3D printing, to build Daniel a lighter, more cost-effective hand.

“I was inspired by pushing the limits of this kind of technology,” said Evan Kuester, an applications engineer at 3D Systems. He began working with Daniel, first taking a scan of both hands to make sure the scale and fit would work.

It took some back-and-forth to get it right, but eventually, Kuester was able to create a 3D-printed prosthetic that could literally come out of a printer as a single piece, at a fraction of the cost.

Kuester said he printed the hand using a Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) printer, powered by robust Intel Core processors. A laser draws the cross section of the hand onto a very fine nylon powder repeatedly until it is fused together into a hard plastic.

“It takes about eight hours to print the hand,” said Kuester, adding that the tech-integrated prosthetic costs around $400.

The Hobbs are from the UK but live in Spain, where both parents are teachers and enjoy giving Daniel and his sister Bethany, 13, the opportunity to learn a different language and culture. Paying for Daniel’s prosthetic was a challenge. To fund the initial cost of $16,000 euros, his dad, Alistair, started the Give Daniel A Hand fundraiser by running a half-marathon.

Kids like Daniel can benefit from inexpensive prosthetics.

But the costs kept multiplying. Each time the hand needed to be refitted to fit Daniel’s growing body, or be re-calibrated or fixed for numerous reasons, it cost a couple thousand dollars and needed to be shipped away so Daniel went without while he waited for it to come back.

“We know so many families who can’t afford it,” said Abby. “So we were really interested in finding out what other options were available. We know this is the future of prosthetics. We’re really interested to see what the future holds.”

Kuester said most people wearing prosthetic hands continue to use their other hand for most things because prosthetics lack fine motor skills. He said 3D-printed prosthetics can be custom shaped, so ostensibly someone could print a hand for a specific purpose — say like holding a hammer, guitar pick or a violin bow — and interchange it when needed.

For Daniel, the lighter prosthetic, which weighs less than 2 pounds, is loaded with cool factor — having an Iron Man-esque hand makes for a popular show and tell.

As Daniel becomes more confident, his whole family can see the change. For Kuester, the experience of making a hand for Daniel has been humbling.

“It makes me feel great to know that some of the things I make actually have an impact on people’s lives,” he said.

Editor’s Note: In this Experience Amazing series, iQ explores how computer technology inside is enabling incredible experiences outside. We look at how computer technology powers new experiences and discoveries in science, the maker movement, fashion, sports and entertainment. To learn more about the tech behind these stories, visit Experience Amazing.

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