Tech Briefs

Engineering students create prosthetic hands for children with 3D printing.

Swing a baseball bat, eat with a fork and knife, steer a bike with both handles — without two hands, a child can’t do any of these ordinary activities that most children take for granted. But now The Helping Hand Project (The HHP), a nonprofit organization based in Chapel Hill, NC, is using the latest advancements in 3D printing technology to make sure fewer children have to live life with such limitations.

Many children who have physical disabilities and need prosthetic hands require custom designs that fit their unique anatomies. (Credit: The Helping Hand Project)

The HHP is nonprofit organization that was started by students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and specializes in providing 3D-printed prosthetic hands — free of charge — for children in need so that they have every opportunity to live their lives to the fullest potential.

In the United States, each year, at least 1,500 children are born with upper-limb differences. This loss of function may be restored with prosthetic devices, but the costs are high, and children may quickly outgrow the devices. In addition, many children who have physical disabilities and need prosthetic hands can use standard designs, but some require custom designs that fit their unique anatomies. Because of this, many families are unable to provide children with devices to reestablish full functionality.

In the fall of 2014, biomedical engineering students at UNC-Chapel Hill recognized this need and began working on prosthetic hands as a project under the university’s Biomedical Engineering Club. The club’s very first “helping hand” was built for a young boy named Holden Mora, who was born with symbrachydactyly, a condition in which the hand stops growing early in amniotic development. Using 3D printed parts, the team created a hand for Holden for less than $40 worth of materials.

The low-cost 3D-printed prosthetic hands restore loss of function for children. (Credit: The Helping Hand Project)

Since then, The HHP has printed hands for 20 children and continues to serve them by maintaining contact with these children so they may receive new devices as they grow. And through in-person meetings and online groups offered to the children and their families, The HHP provides support that goes far beyond simply providing a prosthetic device.

Students dedicated hours of their time developing these hands, using the resources available to them in the biomedical engineering labs, along with a mix of open-source and custom designs. And in 2015, when the demand for its 3D-printed hands outstripped the supply the nonprofit’s older 3D printers could deliver, The HHP partnered with Lenovo to help provide the performance and speed the nonprofit needed to keep its waiting list as short as possible.

Now, HHP engineers design and print devices using Solidworks applications on the Lenovo ThinkStation P500. And they count on Lenovo’s lead ThinkStation engineer to quickly print the 3D print device at Lenovo’s own facility based on the CAD files and the child’s hand specs received from The HHP. Having Lenovo’s engineers onboard to help cuts the printing time substantially, allowing children to receive their hands in just 18–24 hours.

With the help of corporate support and volunteers, the project that was once just a part of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Biomedical Engineering Club is now a nonprofit organization. Going beyond UNC campus, The HHP has also seized the opportunity to expand and inspire young students in its community through traveling workshops. The HHP is partnering with BetaBox, a company that provides mobile prototyping labs, to bring workshops to local schools and teach the students how HHP hands are developed. Students even have the opportunity to work together and assemble a hand, providing them with an exciting introduction to STEM and an opportunity to witness firsthand how their work can benefit a child in need.

For more information, visit www.helpinghandproject.org/home.html.