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Creating ability through 3-D printing

CMU student engineers superhero prosthetic for Muskegon Heights child

​Austin Brittain, a sophomore from Breckenridge, Michigan, has always had an interest in working with cutting-edge technology — from drones to rockets to 3-D printing. He had the opportunity to do just that — and change a little boy's life — when he enrolled in a 3-D creation course at Central Michigan University.

When asked if he would be interested in designing and 3-D printing a prosthetic hand for an 8-year-old boy from Muskegon Heights, Brittain jumped at the chance. The boy, Michael Bell, has Moebius Syndrome and was born without a left hand.

"Ever since hearing that you could 3-D print prosthetic hands, I was blown away by that application," said Brittain, a mechanical engineering and technology student. "To be able to actually do that was really an amazing moment for me."


Bell's resource room teacher, CMU alumna Sarah Volker, noticed that he was struggling with certain tasks in the classroom. She began researching ways to help Bell and discovered 3-D printed prosthetics. She discussed this idea with her husband, CMU art and design faculty members Greg Stahly and Michael Volker, who shared the idea with Brittain.

Michael BellBrittain created a hand for Bell using technology from CMU's MakerBot Innovation Center and templates from E-nable, an organization that 3-D prints prosthetic hands for those in need. The red, white and blue hand was inspired by Bell's favorite superhero, Captain America.

"He felt like a superhero, and that's really cool for him because he wasn't exactly in a position to feel like that every day," Brittain said.

The hand contained less than $10 worth of plastic, and total expenses for the project were under $100. In contrast, custom-made prosthetics retail for thousands of dollars.

The hand consisted of a gauntlet for the wrist, a palm piece and fingers. The pieces are held together by hinges and strings, which allow for movement. When the wrist is flexed, the fingers close. When the pressure is released, the fingers open.

"Fully assembled, ready to go, and Michael's family didn't have to pay for any of that," Brittain said. "That was really powerful for them and shows what the university is capable of doing with their resources, as far as helping people out."

"He felt like a superhero, and that's really cool for him because he wasn't exactly in a position to feel like that every day.​"

 CMU sophomore Austin Brittain ​​

Michael and AustinBoth Michael Volker and Brittain are excited about the outcome of the project and the potential CMU's 3-D printers have to make a difference.

"It gave us an opportunity to show what the 3-D printers can do for real people, not just to study," Michael Volker said. "I think it would also be good for people who are interested in studying here, at CMU and in the art department, to see the kind of world that the 3-D printer can open up."

Bell received the hand from Brittain, Sarah and Michael on his last day of school. Bell's mother, his classmates, the school superintendent and special education director accompanied them.

Brittain plans to stay in touch with Bell and his mother to assure that the hand is functioning well. He also has given them contact information for people who live nearby that can assist with the hand, as Bell will need parts replaced as he grows.

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