E-nable: Volunteers Making Prosthetic Hands on their 3D printers

By June 29, 2015

[Doctors 2.0 and You] The idea behind the E-nable Community is to provide prosthetic hands for people who have lost or been born without hands or fingers. The artificial hand components are made by a network of volunteers on their own 3D printers.

These days amazing progress is being made in prosthetics, but the cost is often still unaffordable for many disabled people. With this in mind, the e-NABLE community has been set up to make prosthetic hands more widely available. One of their French volunteers, Thierry Oquidam, was a speaker at the Doctors 2.0 and You conference, which took place in Paris in early June. e-NABLE was founded just two years ago by US research scientist Jon Schull to put handicapped people who need an artificial hand in touch with volunteers who own 3D printers and are happy to spend some of their own time making the hands. This confirms the view of Doctor Homero Rivas, a bariatric surgery specialist and Professor at Stanford University, who pointed in an interview with L’Atelier to the huge potential of 3D printing in the medical field.

Having come across many personal stories and requests from people looking to obtain prosthetic hands, Jon Schull decided to create an international network of volunteers capable of manufacturing on 3D printers plastic components for affordably-priced hands that enable users to make all basic movements and gestures.

3D-printed components which go to make up the prosthetic hand

A simple manufacturing process

The e-NABLE platform currently makes 10 models of artificial hand available, for two basic categories of user. ‟They are either for young adults who have lost fingers in an accident and want to regain the capacity they’ve lost, or for people who were born without hands or fingers. In France there are around 20,000 such people,” explained Thierry Oquidam, a French entrepreneur with a background in Information Technology, who has been a member of e-NABLE since September last year. The components of the hand are made entirely by the additive layer manufacturing (ALD) approach on a 3D printer, based on a few photos: ‟All the person needing the prosthetic hand has to do is to send a set of photos of his/her arm resting on a table, with a ruler between his/her two arms”, Thierry Oquidam told the conference audience.

Armed with this set of photos, a volunteer manufacturer can produce and assemble a hand that is suitable for the beneficiary’s needs, without ever meeting the recipient. A key feature of these artificial hands is their very low cost: ‟The basic idea is to make a hand which costs as little as possible to produce. We use fishing wire, velcro, ordinary hardware screws and PLA plastic, which cost a total of about €50,” revealed Oquidam. Moreover, as the e-NABLE community runs entirely on a voluntary basis, it is the volunteer him/herself who pays for the materials that go to make the hand. ‟This is one of the prime reasons that our organisation works so well. We don’t pose any real threat to official prosthetics manufacturers,” he stresses.

Customised versions in different colours – generally most popular with children – are also available

Close to 5,000 members in 2015

Inevitably with such a simple design, these hands have limited functionality. ‟The hand is useful for basic tasks such as grasping an object in order to use it, but you couldn’t use it to tie your shoelaces,” points out Thierry Oquidam, stressing nevertheless its value for the wearer from a social point of view: ‟When a child starts wearing a prosthetic hand, s/he moves from being someone who lacks something to someone who has something extra.” Despite the fact that overall production time is quite long – involving all the preparatory work and prototyping in addition to the 24 hours required for the final ‘printing’ – the French volunteer told the audience that several hundred hands have already been delivered via the e-NABLE system.

There is also now an e-NABLE R&D department consisting of thirty or so people, who are focusing on two main areas: ‟Firstly they’re working on improving the current hands to make them more comfortable and cheaper, and secondly they’re developing new prosthetics. At the moment we’re working to develop an arm for people who don’t have a wrist.” This arm is expected to be ready for launch by the end of 2016. Meanwhile the community has grown from just 700 members at end-2014 to 5,000 volunteers today. Thierry Oquidam hopes that this number will continue to grow, as ‟we have far more demand than our volunteers are able to meet.” The organisation is also receiving support from some major companies. For instance, Google announced in May that it was awarding a grant of $600,000 to the Enable Community Foundation.

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