While the world may still be waiting to uncover possible uses for 3-D printers, engineers like Albert Manero have forged ahead, finding ways to use them to better humanity. While he was still an aeronautical engineering student at the University of Central Florida, Manero heard a story on the radio about a volunteer organization called e-NABLE, started by Rochester Institute of Technology research scientist, Jon Schull, that leverages the Internet to connect 3-D printers with people to help children in need of hands and arms. The group creates and shares bionic arm designs for free download that can be assembled for just $20-$50. The Centers for Disease Control estimates approximately 1,500 babies in the U.S. are born with upper limb deformities each year, yet children often don’t get artificial limbs while still growing, largely because the cost (around $40,000) isn’t covered by many insurance plans.
Most 3-D printed arms are mechanical, which is challenging for children without elbows. With mechanical arms, children open and close their hand by bending their elbow. Albert’s team at UCF pioneered the design of a battery-powered arm with a muscle sensor that allows children without elbows to open and close the hand by flexing a bicep. The first recipient was then-6-year-old Orlando resident Alex Pring, whose mother had tried printing out a 3-D arm herself before Manero and his team stepped in, creating a customized robotic arm within six weeks. They offered it to the Pring family for free. The story gained international attention, and was featured on the “Today” show.
Manero launched a non-profit group, Limbitless Solutions, that designs and creates unique 3-D printed arms and hands for children born without them and donates them to families in need. When developing the arms, Manero learned that children don’t always want to blend in, often requesting colorful designs like superheroes. In 2015, Microsoft got involved, sponsoring a visit from actor Robert Downey Jr. to bestow Alex with his own “Iron Man” arm design. With the help of sponsors, Manero hopes to build and deliver 5,000 custom-designed bionic arms to children in need by 2020. “We have a responsibility to do this,” Manero says. “With these degrees in engineering, if we can’t be helping people with them, then what are they worth?