Rice bioengineers use 3-D printers to give kids a hand

Unique partnership allows Shriners patients to build their own mechanical hands

Rice University bioengineering students, staff and faculty teamed up with Marvel Universe LIVE! and Houston’s Shriners Hospitals for Children this week to offer both a free mechanical hand and a once-in-a-lifetime experience to the families of eight Shriners patients who lack all or part of one hand.

Photos by Jeff Fitlow, video by Brandon Martin

Working as a team, volunteers from Rice and the global online community e-NABLE joined performers from the Marvel Universe LIVE! show to help the patients and their families build mechanical hands out of plastic parts that were made on 3-D printers at Rice.

“E-NABLE is a wonderful and inspiring online group of about 3,600 volunteers that I found out about through the 3-D maker community,” said Jordan Miller, assistant professor of bioengineering. “E-NABLE community volunteers create open-source designs for mechanical hand assistive devices that can be freely downloaded and 3-D-printed for less than $50 in materials.”

A typical prosthetic hand can cost $4,000 or more, and young patients typically outgrow several of them during childhood.

Kim Harris, said the mechanical hand that the performers, students and volunteers helped her family build will be her son Keith’s first prosthetic.

“This is pretty much the only option he’s got,” she said. “He’s really not eligible for (more expensive prosthetics) because he’s six, and he’s growing quite a bit.”

Keith, who has symbrachydactyly, has part of two fingers on his left hand. Kim Harris said she believes the new mechanical hand will boost Keith’s confidence by making it easier to do things like tie his shoes and carry his lunch tray.

Keith’s father, Michael Harris, said the build event offered Keith the first chance to meet other kids who had the same upper-limb differences.

Kim Harris said, “E-NABLE has helped him come out of his shell, and so has the Lucky Fin Project, which is another organization. It’s his lucky fin now, and he’s really proud of it, and this is the first time he’s met another person who has a lucky fin.”

Dr. Gloria Gogola, a hand surgeon and chief of Hand Services at Shriners Hospital for Children-Houston, said, “The collaboration between Rice University and Shriners Hospital has resulted in remarkable innovations that have directly impacted children’s lives in very positive ways. The assistive hands that the e-NABLE community has developed are perfect for children. They are light, rugged, inexpensive and endlessly customizable to a child’s changing size, needs and interests throughout childhood. It is exciting to us at Shriners to be able to help bring this technology to kids who need it.”

Miller, lab manager Anderson Ta and several Rice undergraduates worked with e-NABLE and Shriners Hospital to print hundreds of the plastic parts that were used in Thursday’s build session at Shriners.

“One size doesn’t fit all for prosthetics,” Miller said. “They are very personal devices that need to be customized for each patient.”

He said the e-NABLE community has created free online software that allows a parent or doctor to have the digital 3-D designs of a mechanical hand emailed to them simply by inputting a few dimensions. Once the emailed files are uploaded to a 3-D printer, users need only hit the print button to create the parts for a custom-designed hand, Miller said.

“Because of the low cost of these devices, it’s now possible for kids to upgrade their hands whenever new designs come out or even to learn how to design their own prosthetics,” Miller said.

Ta said the partnership with Marvel Universe LIVE! added another dimension to this week’s event.

“One of the recent trends in e-NABLE’s 3-D maker community is to develop hands on a particular theme,” Ta said. “Kids love superheroes, and it’s really exciting for them to be able to have a hand that matches the theme of their favorite character.”

The event allowed patients and their families to meet and work alongside performers from the Marvel Universe LIVE! show to build the mechanical hands. Marvel Universe LIVE!, which is performing at NRG Stadium Feb. 7-15, also invited everyone involved in the build session to attend the show for free and see the performers in action.

“This project is a prime example of why I chose bioengineering as my major,” said Brown College senior Kim Le, who helped print parts and build hands with families. “I get to interact with people, help them and improve their lives with the work that I’ve done. To see the children with the hands is an extraordinary experience.”

For more information about e-NABLE, visit www.enablingthefuture.org. Those interested in volunteering can email letsgetstarted@enablingthefuture.org. Families interested in mechanical hands for their children can email letsgetstarted@enablingthefuture.org or call Shriners Hospital at 713-797-1616.


About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.