How Project Daniel is crafting prosthetic limbs with 3D printers

Project Daniel is a rare beacon of light in the otherwise war-torn area of South Sudan: researchers recently pioneered 3D printing as a means of…
How Project Daniel is crafting prosthetic limbs with 3D printers

Project Daniel Brings Artificial Limbs to South Sudan Thanks to 3D Printing. (Photo Shutterstock)

Project Daniel is a rare beacon of light in the otherwise war-torn area of South Sudan: researchers recently pioneered 3D printing as a means of building prosthetic arms for child amputees.

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According to the official press release, Project Daniel—which is funded by Not Impossible, LLC—opened the “world’s first 3D-printing prosthetic lab and training facility” in the Nuba Mountain region of Sudan. In November of 2013, Not Impossible CEO Mick Ebeling fitted double arm amputee Daniel Omar with a prosthetic arm, allowing the 14-year-old to grip objects, shake hands, and feed himself for the first time in two years.

With 3D printing on the rise in the medical world, both to create prosthetics and real human tissue, Project Daniel hopes to expand its provision of prosthetic printers to other regions of South Sudan, Africa, and beyond.

Reaching Out

Daniel, the project’s namesake, lost both arms at age 12. During an aerial attack, he wrapped his body around a tree in an attempt to protect himself. While he survived, both of his upper limbs were blown off.

He’s not alone: according to the Project Daniel video, the war in South Sudan has left 50,000 amputees, many of them children. However, Daniel happened to be the subject of a 2012 story in TIME magazine, which caught Mick Eberling’s attention.

Eberling read the story and felt compelled to help, so he brought together a prosthetics and 3D printing team. Notable among the contributors was Richard Van As, the creater of Robohand. Van As’ design for a low-cost, mechanical prosthesis that could be swapped out for a bigger model as children grew became the model for Daniel’s prosthesis.

Surprisingly Simple Design

3-D printers  for organs

3D printing on the rise in the medical world. ( CREDIT: Organovo).

In contrast to modern prosthetic limbs, which are designed to be ever-more realistic and have advanced sensitivity and capability, Daniel’s new arm isn’t fancy. The Robohand, constructed of disparate plastic pieces and cables, looks more like a primitive robot skeleton than anything else.

However, it is functional. The prosthesis, which can be printed for around $100 as opposed to the tens of thousands it costs for a myoelectric prosthesis, begins with printing heat-moldable plastic to wrap around the patient’s limb. Once that anchor is created, the hand, digits, and digit cables are printed and attached to the plastic. That’s it.

The hand works by raising the wrist up or down, which causes the digit cables to “tense” or “relax” in a gripping motion. Moving the elbow side to side also pulls on the cabling in such a way as to allow patients to grasp and release objects. Not Impossible is still working on making the prosthesis better able to handle heavy objects, but for many day-to-day activities, it’s completely capable.

According to Eberling’s interview with The Guardian, attaching Daniel’s new arm and then watching the teenager feed himself “was a highlight that was right up there with watching my kids being born.” And Daniel? He was all smiles.

3D Printers for All?

After that initial success in South Sudan, Eberling and Project Daniel wanted to ensure that other child amputees had access to the technology.

Not Impossible now offers the open-source printing design for free, with the hope that it will spread around the globe. The company also left a set of 3D printers in Daniel’s village and trained locals in their use. Currently, the South Sudanese lab prints one prosthesis per week for those child victims of the war.

Eberling best summed up Project Daniel’s potential: “The sharing of the prostheses’ specifications…will enable any person in need, anywhere on the planet, to use technology for its best purpose: restoring humanity.”

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