All hands in at “Helping Hands”

Student-led effort to 3D print prosthetics for kids in need

| March 28, 2017

Prosthetics created in 3D printers in the Makerspace in Woodward Hall by members of The Helping Hands project. Photo courtesy of Vaishu Jawahar.

One of UNC Charlotte’s organizations, The Helping Hands Project, combines the newest technology campus has to offer with an interdisciplinary group of students with the goal of changing the lives of kids with disabilities. They utilize 3D printers in the Makerspace in Woodward Hall to create basic prosthetics that enable the kids to play sports or go fishing.

Since starting unofficial operations in January, a team of students from a variety of backgrounds such as engineering, biology, exercise science and computer science, successfully collaborated to make a prosthesis for a 9-year-old girl named Amy. They used a high-end 3D printer available for UNC Charlotte students free of cost and spent $30 on plastic filament, rubber tips, bands and straps. The result was a bright blue plastic forearm customized for Amy’s specific measurements with mechanically-powered fingers capable of grip.

“3D printing is something that anyone can do,” said Co-design Will Lenon.

Creating one prosthesis can take weeks. The Helping Hands Project uses designs available online and modeling software to tailor them to the specifications of each child.

“There are a lot of hand designs out there, but there are a lot of cases that are different than others and a lot of modifications that can be made,” Club President Henry Weaver said.

Once the design is ready, the parts are printed piece by piece. The Taz6 3D printer ejects melted PLA plastic in thin layers until the model is formed, which can be time-consuming since it isn’t always without error.

“The biggest dedication we make is definitely time because, one, it takes time to print and, two, you have to troubleshoot,” said Weaver.

On this particular Friday afternoon, biology major Weaver, mechanical engineering major Will Lenon, and exercise science major Brandon Glover are overseeing the print of the green forearm piece pictured below-a process that can take up to seven hours.

But for the nine students who rotate into the Makerspace throughout the week, working on the project is well-worth it. The organization is a branch of a non-profit founded in Chapel Hill, where it originally began as a student organization at UNC Chapel Hill. The first child to receive a hand through the non-profit was Holden Mora, a 7-year-old boy with a condition that prevented his hand from fully developing during the fetal stages. Now there are chapters throughout the research triangle park area, including at NC State, providing hands to children who have had amputations or were born with conditions like Holden’s. These hands are made at extremely low cost compared to those made by prosthetic companies and are provided at no cost to the children. Though they are not meant to replace prosthetic limbs, they serve a clear purpose.

“We can make them more tailored to the kid and specific tasks. Say the kid wants to play the piano, fish, or play the Xbox, we can make them multiple cheap hands [to suit those purposes],” said Weaver.

“Obviously kids are growing quickly, so instead of paying $1000 for a new one every time, we can make these at no cost to them,” said Glover.

When the club isn’t at work in Woodward, they’re busy raising money for the cause. They raised close to $200 collaborating with the Chemistry Club at a Pie-a-Professor event and look forward to throwing a fundraiser at Chipotle. Mention “Helping Hands” at the register between 5-9 p.m., and half of your purchase will go towards helping children in need receive a hand. Helping Hands is also hosting a Rent-A-Puppy event in the courtyard by Woodward from 1-4 p.m.

The Helping Hands Project raised money at the Pie-A-Professor event. Photo courtesy of Henry Weaver.

When asked about the future of the club and goals for the semester, Weaver focused on finishing the group’s two current projects: the second hand for Amy and a hand for a boy named Landon, and also added that the club looks forward to “establishing themselves as a club and doing more for the kids receiving the hands such as creating a family day for the Helping Hands families to enjoy or organizing opportunities for the kids to meet athletes on campus.”The group is seeking new members who are interested in assisting with publicity, fundraising or social media. If you are looking for ways to get involved or know a child in need, email hhpuncc@gmail.com for more information.

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