Prosthetics is one area that really illustrates the transformative potential of 3-D printing. Industrially produced prosthetics can cost thousands of dollars, a prohibitive cost for many who need them. By contrast, the materials to make a 3-D printed prosthesis could run only $20 to $50.
E-Nable is an online community that matches makers and designers with people who need 3-D printed prosthetic hands–mostly children born missing a hand or fingers.
The founder of E-Nable, Jon Schull, got the idea from a YouTube video documenting the efforts of a carpenter from South Africa and a puppeteer from Washington state who collaborated to produce a 3-D printed prosthetic hand for a five-year-old South African boy born without fingers on his right hand.
“This gave me the opportunity to do something very simple,” Schull says. “I created a Google Map mashup. And then I left a comment on the the YouTube video saying ‘If you have a printer and want to help, put yourself on this map. And If you need a hand, put yourself on this map.’ ”
From that straightforward beginning 18 months ago, E-Nable has grown dramatically, with some people volunteering nearly full-time hours to coordinate the network. Schull estimates that the 3,500 members of the E-Nable community have printed and given away over 800 prosthetic hands and limbs to children in need.
Some volunteers are maker enthusiasts with 3-D printers in their homes. Others are designers, occupational therapists, and prosthetists. With their combination of skills and the adaptability of 3-D printed designs, volunteers are able to remotely collaborate to create custom prosthetics tailored for each individual
Nonetheless, Schull said he was surprised to see how many needs could be met by just their one basic model.
“In principle, every maker can tweak the design. That was our original inspiration,” he says. “In truth, I’d say that 80% of the inquiries that come our way will work with a fairly standard prosthetic. So we have volunteers who are covering the general cases and volunteers who can work on those special cases.”
E-Nable’s next step is to expand globally. While there are members of the community from around the world, the vast majority of hands delivered so far have gone to children in the United States.
“Most of the cases we’ve served so far are the people who have heard about us,” says Schull. “That tends to be parents of middle class children in stable environments mostly in the United States and to some extent in Europe. That is a small percentage of the population. And in some ways those guys are already among the luckiest people in the history of humanity.”
As a first foray along those lines, a group of E-Nable volunteers traveled to Haiti in December to meet with prosthetists at the Hospital Albert Schweitzer in Descapelles, which provides health care to an underserved rural population. The volunteers also met with a maker space in Port au Prince and shared ideas on how to create functional 3-D printed prosthetics.
“There is a huge need among under-served populations around the world for inexpensive, robust prosthetics,” says Schull.