James Lutton’s face lit up with excitement when he saw the shiny, red mechanical hand that had been made just for him. Once he was all strapped in, six-year-old James was able to do something he had never been able to do — pick things up with his left hand.
James was born with symbrachydactyly, which restricts the growth of a hand, typically the left, in the womb. This happens once in 32,000 births and has no apparent cause, according to the Boston Children’s Hospital. James’ mother, Nikki, did her own online research about 3-D printed hands after learning how expensive prosthetics are even with help from insurance. Paying more than $20,000 for a prosthetic hand for James, who is likely to outgrow the device very quickly, just wasn’t in the cards for the Luttons. “It was going to be so expensive for a prosthetic and those have to be replaced every year or two,” Nikki said. “For me, it wasn’t feasible. I would pay any amount of money to get him what he needs, but that’s not something we could do right now.”
Nikki reached out to several companies and organizations that she knew used 3-D printers. When Dr. Sid Connor with the North Carolina Center for Engineering Technology (NCCET) responded to her email, she had no idea how great it would turn out.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Nikki said. “This has been a great experience and they’ve went above and beyond anything I thought that they could do. We’re very excited about it.”
Intern Will Kennedy, a 17-year-old senior at Discovery High School, presented the hand to James on Monday evening. Creating the hand has been Kennedy’s main project so far while interning at NCCET. “I’ve learned everything from casting processes where I had to use all sorts of different silicones to make molds, to learning about all the different materials and processes with 3-D printing,” Kennedy said. “There are all sorts of different aspects that came together with this.” Kennedy first learned about 3-D printing at Discovery, but took it to a whole new level when he began working with NCCET.
“Will is a bright young man and he’s done a great job with this,” Connor said. “He didn’t design the model from scratch because there are models already out there, but he had to make changes and customize those models and go through a lot of processes. It’s been a great learning experience for him.”
Kennedy, who served as the project engineer, worked alongside Blake Holden, a senior from Patton High School who is completing his senior project, to research, design and build the hand. This process including meeting with James, taking measurements, designing prototypes and a lot of trial and error.
“As an engineer, you really learn more from your failures than your successes,” Connor said. “So I’ve allowed him to be less than 100 percent successful sometimes just as part of the learning process.” The hand had to be proportional, comfortable, safe and pretty durable to survive on a 6-year-old’s arm. The finished project was a smooth ABS material, a kind of plastic with some polycarbonate in it, with many small pieces attached with screws and a fishing line used to pull the fingers open and closed. There is a foam padding on the inside for comfort and the hand attaches to James’ arm with large velcro straps. Once James is strapped in, he can open and close the hand by bending his wrist back and forth.
James said he was excited to be able to pick up everything at his house. He was also excited that the hand was designed to his precise specifications.
“James is really shy,” Kennedy said. “He’ll smile every once in a while but it was a cool moment when he finally spoke up and said that he wanted it to be red and he wanted his name on it. Those are the only things he asked us for, so we did that.”
James practiced picking up stress balls, glasses and his mom’s phone on Monday as he learned to use his new hand. Although this project may be over, Kennedy’s internship and learning opportunities will continue for several more months at NCCET. It makes me feel accomplished to know that on top of interning at NCCET, I also can do a project that has a larger scale impact,” Kennedy said. “In my English classes in the morning, we talk about having an impact and solving real-world problems. I really get to solve a real-world problem in the afternoon. To have a project that, in my mind, is an actual real-world problem being solved by me, as opposed to a supposed problem solving project in school, is very gratifying.”
Text and Photos Courtesy of Tiffany Fields, The Observer News Enterprise