A Global Network of Volunteers Is Making 3D-Printed Prosthetic Hands for Kids

The grassroots eNABLE Community pairs 3D-printing tinkerers with families in need around the world.

As with so many things in life, it all started with whalebone, a steampunk convention and a 19th century Australian dentist.

In 2011, engineer Ivan Owen created a giant mechanical puppet hand as part of his costume for a steampunk convention in Seattle, Wash. Five years later, through a string of improbable digital age connections, Owen's initial idea has grown into the the open-source e-NABLE Community, volunteer army with nearly 10,000 participants in 40 countries, bringing 3D-printed prosthetic hands to kids everywhere.

It's actually pretty simple, in a grassroots kind of way. By sharing open-source designs online, any tinkerer with a 3D printer and a nearby hardware store can print and assemble various assistive devices for needy people in their local community. These prosthetic devices - mostly hands - aren't as functional or durable as commercially available medical devices, but they're cheap and easy to make, with total costs typically less than $50.

In developing countries, the technology is a godsend for those in need - particularly kids. And because kids grow, it doesn't cost a lot of money to 3D print the next size up.

"Children who were born with no fingers, or have lost them due to accident, disease or war, now have an option for an assistive device that can grow with them, for little or no cost," Jen Owen, Ivan's wife and the other half of the Owen family project, told Seeker.

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Jen now handles the bulk of the logistics for the rapidly growing initiative, whose digital rallying point is the sprawling Enabling the Future website. Speaking from the their home in Seattle, she said the grassroots group has now delivered more than 2,000 3D-printed hands to those in need, mostly kids, around the world.

So how did this all happen? That takes us back to the steampunk convention. After the con, Ivan posted a YouTube video of the mechanical puppet hand he'd thrown together for his costume. He soon received an email from a carpenter named Richard in South Africa, who had lost his fingers in a woodworking accident.

Together, Richard and Ivan collaborated on a version of the design that could work as an ultra-basic prosthetic hand. Soon they were designing a smaller version for a five-year-old South African boy who was born with no fingers.

That led Ivan to research the curious case of Corporal Coles' hand, a prosthesis made of whalebone, created by an Australian dentist in 1845. It incorporated a simple pulley system that was the perfect design for Ivan's developing blueprints.

By combining the original concept, the pulley system, and the emerging capabilities of 3D printing, the designers realized they could make differently sized versions of the hand, which would be critical for growing kids.

That's when things went viral, in true digital-age fashion. Rather than patent his designs, Ivan chose to publish the files as an open-source document in the public domain. A community of like-minded tinkerers quickly adopted the concept, improving old designs, creating new ones, and building the eNABLE Community network. Those interested in more detail will want to check out Jen Owens' exhaustive documentation on the history of the project, which includes pictures, videos and instructions for both volunteers and families in need.

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The eNABLE Community is entirely grassroots and independent; there's no company or agenda behind the project. The group's online presence serves primarily as a way to collaborate, share designs and match volunteers with kids. Local groups now organize regular "Hand-a-Thon" events where people can get together and build prosthetic devices for kids around the world. These events pop up everywhere from Boy Scout meetings to transhumanist conferences. Check out the group's Get Involved pages for more details.

For Jen Owen, it's all been a wild ride.

"I've been documenting this story from the beginning, and I am excited every day to see where else it has gone," she said. "You know, this is our legacy. It started in my garage with my own family. I have watched it go from a bulky metal contraption created for one child, to a beautiful creation that is being put on thousands of children and adults worldwide."