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Designers Create Custom 3D-Printed Arm for Adorable 5-Year-Old

How an open-source prosthetics platform and Care Bears sparked one girl’s interest in science and technology.

The mission of e-NABLE is noble but simple—leverage the power of 3D printing to create prosthetics for amputees and those with birth defects. But instead of building a profit-oriented company, e-NABLE made its 3D-print designs open-source and public domain, allowing anyone to download, remix, and improve them. As validation of the approach, in the last two years e-NABLE has become a full-fledged global community with a variety of freely available 3D-printed prosthetic designs.

For their latest project, e-NABLE teamed up with FATHOM, a manufacturer focused on 3D printing, to create a unique, specialized prosthetic for a 5-year-old girl named Isabella who was born with amniotic band syndrome. The prenatal medical condition caused a birth defect in her right arm, making it difficult for Isabella to carry out tasks that many of us take for granted. FATHOM’s Silas Alexander tells GOOD about the particular challenges of the collaborative project, and how they were tackled.

Alexander says that while the e-NABLE community had a growing set of production-ready designs available to any volunteer with a 3D printer, the effects of Isabella’s amniotic band syndrome called for something more complex and personalized. While many prosthetics require only minor component scaling based on the user’s wrist and palm measurements, in Isabella’s case, FATHOM and e-NABLE needed to build a totally new design to accommodate Isabella’s limited wrist movement.

“The FATHOM engineering and design team worked on creating a final design throughout the year while Isabella practiced with 3D-printed prototypes,” Alexander says. “The 3D CAD (computer-aided design) was inspired by another open-source design on the e-NABLE community, but it is completely redesigned and rebuilt since Isabella has very specific needs.”

“FATHOM made a mold of her arm, 3D-scanned the model, and built an elbow-actuated prosthetic that was personalized to Isabella’s measurements and personal taste—bright pink, with Care Bears artwork,” he adds. “Mechanical engineer Bethany Casarez and industrial designer Ava DeCapri uploaded the design—now called the ‘Isabella Arm’—to the e-NABLE community so volunteers can remix and resize it for other children with less wrist strength or partial forearms.”

After Isabella’s family had made a few road trips north through California to FATHOM, Alexander and his colleagues drove from Oakland to Bakersfield in November to personally deliver the final 3D-printed prosthetic. To make it an extra special event for Isabella, FATHOM contacted the parent company behind Care Bears, American Greetings.

“When they heard about the story, American Greetings was eager to help out in whatever way they could, and sent over a large package loaded with Care Bears gifts for Isabella,” Alexander says. “We wanted her to know that the characters she cares about most care about her, too.”

And how did Isabella respond to the prosthetic? Alexander says in their initial meetings, she was very shy and would often hide her “baby arm.” But throughout the year she became comfortable being who she is both with and without the 3D-printed prosthetic.

While augmenting her arm’s capabilities, the prosthetic has had an even bigger effect on Isabella’s confidence. Alexander says she no longer hides her arm, and is eager to show off what she now calls her “robot arm.”

“Casarez and DeCapri really developed a bond with her, and Isabella has continually showed a strong interest in STEM, no doubt at least partially because of her exposure to young women working in science-related careers,” Alexander tells GOOD. “Another aspect of e-NABLE that’s having a positive impact is that it encourages kids like Isabella to continue being involved in the organization after receiving their hands.”

“We’re hoping that Isabella continues down the STEM path and becomes an engineer or designer someday.”

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