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Students offer a helping hand by designing 3D-printed prosthetics

[Sept. 9, 2020: University of Buffalo]

Each year, thousands of people around the world lose a hand or finger, often due to accidents, war, natural disaster or illness.

After this loss, accessing and affording traditional prosthetic devices can present their own challenge to these individuals, who often live in developing countries with limited medical care.

A group of undergraduates in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has aspired to fill this gap, putting their knowledge, creativity and resources to use as an engineering intramural activity and creating a campus chapter of e-NABLE — an online global community of 30,000 volunteers who use 3D printers to make free and low-cost prosthetic upper-limb devices for adults and children in need.

“Over the last few years, we’ve been experimenting with 3D-printed prosthetics, which is what e-NABLE is all about,” says Andrew Olewnik, director of experiential learning programs and an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Education. “Working with e-NABLE provided cool opportunities for students to apply engineering work and contribute to that community.”

Part of the school’s Experiential Learning Programs, an engineering intramural is any problem-based extracurricular project that provides students with a real-world learning experience. The school has been partnering with e-NABLE on various intramural projects since 2018.

This past spring, a group of students teamed up to explore different aspects of the 3D-printed prosthetics process. Over the course of the semester, four teams focused on different projects: designing a pre-prosthetic forearm that can have various hand attachments to perform a variety of tasks; testing upper limb prosthetics to ensure that the designs meet appropriate specifications and metrics; developing a bill of materials and instruction manual for assembling a 3D-printed hand and ideal conditions for printing; and analyzing and improving the methods of parameterization when a patient is remotely measured for their preferred prosthetic, which is scaled before printing and delivering.

“Engineering intramurals and e-NABLE have given me a newfound love and interest in 3D printing, as well as furthered my interest in prosthetics and orthopedics as a career,” says Alyssabeth Czajkowski, a senior biomedical engineering major and a team project manager.

Czajkowski’s team addressed the challenge of creating an upper-limb pre-prosthetic — also known as an interim prosthetic. Patients may wait a long time for their final prosthetic; during this time, a pre-prosthetic, such as e-NABLE’s Unlimbited Arm design, is crucial for both rehab and getting the patient adjusted to using a prosthetic. After printing their designs, the students hope to work in conjunction with the Erie County Medical Center to test their models in real-life scenarios.

While the projects were challenging before the coronavirus pandemic, the teams had to be particularly creative when they went remote in March.

“When we lost access to the labs and were unable to carry out some of the testing that we had planned, we determined that we needed to come up with a new approach that could be carried out remotely,” says Sabrina Sleasman, an intramural participant and junior in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. “We had to ask: How can we still test these remotely?” For her team, which focused on test-engineering 3D-printed prosthetics, the answer lay in developing an analytical model, which was a new experience for all of the group members.

UB became an official chapter of e-NABLE this past spring. With the help of Olewnik, chapter leads Eric Paccione and Czajkowski spent the fall 2019 semester researching the requirements of becoming an e-NABLE community chapter, brainstorming project ideas and seeking out students to begin the chapter.

“One of the requirements was to print a ‘test hand’ to show our competence with 3D printing and assembling e-NABLE designs,” says Paccione, a senior biomedical engineering major and team project manager. “This led to our chapter hosting its first workshop and interest meeting where we had already 3D printed the parts, and we had groups of students work to assemble hands.”

The chapter, e-NABLE@UB, is in the process of developing more projects for the fall semester, in collaboration with UB’s Experiential Learning Network and students and faculty in other disciplines.

“One of the things that makes the e-NABLE community so great is the opportunity to bring in fields other than engineering,” say Czajkowski and Paccione. “The prosthetic field itself requires collaboration across the medical field, such as rehabilitation/physical therapy and public health, in addition to engineering. Becoming a more interdisciplinary group provides ample opportunity for students to grow accustomed to working alongside people with different skill sets and interests.”

The e-NABLE community has more than 140 e-NABLE chapters and hundreds of schools taking part in their mission of making free 3D-printed hands for those in need, using open-source and low-cost designs.

“What I like most about the projects we do is that our end results can reach much further than UB. With the community chapter network and e-NABLE forum, we are able to share what we do directly with people around the world who are working on similar projects, contributing to a greater body of knowledge,” says Paccione.

In addition to Czajkowski, Paccione and Sleasman, participants in e-NABLE projects during the spring semester included Ruby Acquah, Connor Bittlingmaier, Huy Dang, Sovannrith Em, Jeff Joseph, Taylor Marabella, Marsha Maredia, Angelique Miane, Preethi Sivaswaamy Mohana, Sreeja Morishetty, Jui Mahendra Naik (project manager), Daniel Pardo, Taylor Quinn, Anthony Romeo, Wilson David Jo Siu (project manager), Rachael Warren, Elise Williamson and Jason Yin. Graduate students Elakkiya Jayaraman and Aliakbar Eranpurwala served as project mentors.

Additional collaborators were Filip Stefovonic and Mark Ehrensberger, faculty members in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and the 3D Printing Working Group.


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