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3-D printers put limb prosthetics for kids in reach

November 23, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
A professor from upstate New York is transforming the world for young people in need of limbs. WXXI's Innovation Trail offers his story in his own words.
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GWEN IFILL: A professor from Upstate New York is using technology to transform the world, especially for young people in need of limbs.

He shares his experience in his own words as part of this trip down innovation trail, a series of reports on the economy and technology in Upstate New York.

This report was produced by WXXI in Rochester.

JON SCHULL, Rochester Institute of Technology: I’m Jon Schull. I’m a research scientist here at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where I’m in the Center for Magic. RIT is a center for media, arts, games, interaction and creativity, where I run a lab on access and collaboration technology, which is how I got started founding an organization called e-NABLE — e-NABLE.

And what we do is, we make mechanical hands for children who are missing fingers using 3-D printers, and we give them away for free. Just like printing a document, you press print and the 3-D printer starts building this object that you designed on the screen by putting down tiny thin layers of plastic like a glue gun, layer by layer by layer, building it up to make the thing.

A prosthetic arm these days costs about $40,000. One in 2,000 kids are born with some kind of an arm or hand abnormality. They don’t get prosthetics because it makes no sense to spend $40,000 on something they’re going to outgrow in a year. With a 3-D printer, we can start making these things almost for nothing.

Instead of $40,000, you can do it with about $10 or $20 worth of plastic. And it’s not as sturdy as a $40,000 titanium artificial arm. On the other hand, if you outgrow it or break it, you can make another.

One of the interesting things about this project is that the kids that we’re making these hands for are becoming inventors and designers in their own right.

I was working with Derek a few months ago. And I was showing him this artificial arm that we are working on and explaining that we needed kids to work with us as test pilots and as collaborators. And while I’m talking to him, he put two of these models together and he said, “I would like my arm to be this long.”

So, Derek now has an arm which is extra long. He can pick things up off the floor without bending over and he can reach to the highest shelf, higher than his classmates, because he has got an extra long arm, the so-called Derek Arm, which just goes to show that 7-year-olds and 9-year-olds can play a really important role helping us invent the solutions for other kids and other grownups in the future.

You know, disability is a funny word. Disability means you can’t do something. It’s not a disease, and it’s not even a property of a person. A person doesn’t have a disability. A person has a disability if he’s in a world where he can’t do something.

If I didn’t have glasses in a world in which there’s lot of fine print, I would be disabled. As it is, I’m just a guy who wears glasses.

The technology of eyeglasses turned nearsightedness and farsightedness into a nuisance, when it used to be a disability. New technology is going to turn things like you’re missing a hand or you can’t move your body or you have brain damage into a nuisance, rather than a disability.

Editor’s Note: Jon Schull’s name was incorrectly spelled as Schull.

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