Mercy College Student Offers A Hand – One He’s Printed Himself

Kathryn Bubrig

Image of Mercy College student

Jonathan Lehman, a senior BSN student at Mercy College of Ohio, was instantly fascinated when he first learned of 3D printing (also known as rapid prototyping). While it has been around since the 1980s, 3D printing was mostly used by large businesses utilizing commercial 3D printers that can cost more than $100,000. Only recently did 3D printers become available in the form of desktop printers. Jonathan had seen little trinkets made by desktop 3D printers but when he saw a functional mechanical hand prosthetic made almost entirely from a 3D printer, he became captivated.

Costs for custom hand prostheses typically range from $3,000 for a basic mechanical prosthetic to $100,000 for the leading myoelectric prosthetics. With this new technology, a mechanical hand prosthetic can be made for about $50. This has huge implications in providing individuals with prosthetics that may never have the money or resources to obtain one.  After researching, Jonathan learned of a non-profit organization, e-NABLE,  that finds recipients in need of a prosthetic. e-NABLE was founded by Jon Schull, a research scientist at Rochester Institute of Technology, with a dream of providing affordable prosthetics to anyone in need of one,  free of charge. Engineers and inventors design functional 3D prosthetic models and make the design files available to the public. Volunteers with 3D printers then print the parts while other volunteers assemble them into working hands. Finally, members of the organization match recipients with an appropriately sized prosthetic.

Most of the hands e-NABLE works with are for individuals with a congenital abnormality called  Symbrachydactyly, where the fingers are fused but the individual still has function of the wrist. The bending of the wrist downward pulls tension lines that are fed through the fingers, and the fingers close  simultaneously on the prosthetic. The organization mostly makes pediatric prosthetics. The 3D files can constantly be scaled as the child grows and new prosthetics can be built for them.

Jonathan became determined to build a hand prosthetic, but he did not own a 3D printer. He found a company that would make the printed parts and hardware for the hand assembly for less than $200. While this is a great price for a prosthetic, he knew that if he wanted to continue to make the hands, he would need to purchase his own printer. Owning his own printer would also allow him to start designing and modifying the prosthetics. Finding the right printer on a small budget was a challenge but he was able to purchase one for under $500. He has made many test prints but the machine has to be hand-calibrated and adjustments have to be made before he feels confident starting the more than 20-hour continuous print job.

This emerging technology will provide many individuals with prosthetics that may never have had the resources to obtain one before. e-NABLE, has provided more than 1,000 individuals with hands not just in the U.S., but Europe, Asia, and Africa as well. Hand prosthetics are only the beginning when it comes to the medical applications of 3D printers. As a nursing student at Mercy College, Jonathan knows that hand prosthetics are only the beginning when it comes to the medical applications of 3D printers. Mercy College is committed to inspiring students to lead and serve in the global community just as Jonathan is doing as he nears complete assembly of his first fully functional prosthetic.

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