Colorful, personalized, playable: e-NABLE creates 3D printed hand devices
Colorful, personalized, playable: e-NABLE creates 3D printed hand devices
A smile spreading across the face of a child and grateful parents – that’s something three people from Duisburg got to experience numerous times last year. Under the name e-NABLE Germany e.V., Lars Thalmann, Bernice Walter and Jan Hengst produce prosthetic hands for children and adolescents. What makes this so extraordinary: the young user gets to decide the look of the prosthesis because he/she can choose the color of the personalized model that comes from a 3D printer.
No matter which size nor color, if it were up to the e-NABLE team there would be even more hand devices meaning that there would be more children having their special and individual device for their everyday life.
REHACARE.de talked to Jan Hengst, the founder and Executive Vice President of e-NABLE Germany e.V. about helping hands and a community that wants to do good things without the notion of profit.
Mr. Hengst, what exactly is e-NABLE?
Jan Hengst: e-NABLE is a volunteer organization that uses modern 3D printing technology to make colorful and customized hand and arm prosthetics and gives them away at no charge primarily to children.
The team consists of three people. Lars Thalmann started the project. Bernice Walter and you then joined him. How did you meet and create e-NABLE Germany e.V.?
Hengst: Lars Thalmann discovered e-NABLE in September 2016 in the U.S.*(see Infobox) and immediately started a so-called "chapter" in Germany, a local branch if you will. Thanks to a TV documentation, e-NABLE also caught the attention of Bernice Walter because she became interested in prosthetics while she prepared for medical school. After she had called my attention to it as well, we both decided to establish e-NABLE in Germany and met Lars during the course of our research.
What has changed for you since you founded e-NABLE Germany in 2016?
Hengst: In addition to public relations and tradeshow appearances, we have been able to deliver approximately 15 hands to children and adolescents. Though this number may not sound like much at first, you have to remember that there are only three of us and that this is volunteer work on top of our regular studies and jobs. Plus this type of work is not exactly easy to do in Germany. After all, bringing medical devices like our prosthetic hands to market is not an easy feat in Germany, even if you give them away for free. That’s also why we had to invest the better part of our energy into sorting out the legal situation in Germany. Unfortunately, this process is far from being completed because our charitable status still needs to be recognized while we still have to undergo a review by the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (Bundesinstitut für Arzneimittel und Medizinprodukte) at the same time. Sadly, the latter in particular is an extremely costly process that we technically can’t afford.
The e-NABLE Community was born between 2011 and 2013 in the United States. For a Steampunk Convention, Ivan Owen had designed a fully functioning metal hand that caught the attention of a South African, who had lost his fingers in a sawmill accident. The ensuing collaboration then caught the attention of the mother of a five-year-old, who asked the unlikely duo of tinkerers for a helping hand. This ultimately resulted in the first 3D printed prosthetic hand. Instead of protecting the hand and its design, Ivan Owen posted his design on the Internet and thus laid the foundation for the now global e-NABLE Community. Since that time, there have been numerous improvements and design adaptations that can be accessed and used by anyone at any time.
And here these are not actually medical prosthetics. What makes them different?
Hengst: Our hands don’t claim to rival medical prosthetic devices. Instead, our focus is on the psychological effect: while a medical prosthetic device is designed to "conceal" a physical disability and maybe even hide it, our hands achieve the exact opposite. Suddenly you are no longer the kid with the broken hand, but the one with the colorful superhero or princess hand.
The way you use our hands is also different. An e-NABLE hand weighs between a mere 100 and 150 grams and thus often only weighs a fraction of a myoelectric hand. This makes it especially easy for young people to use. What’s more, there is no battery that can run out, you have direct mechanical feedback and – this is crucial – it’s okay if it breaks. Parents generally don’t let their children jump around, play in the sandbox or the like with a 30,000 Euro prosthetic device. Our hands are here to be played with and used in the carefree spirit of children. And should something break, we can simply replace the component and repair it.
How quickly do children get the hang of their new hands?
Hengst: It is very easy to use our hands. Oftentimes, you can immediately grab and move things with our designed models that rely on wrist movement. The models that rely on elbow movement are slightly more difficult to use. This often takes a bit of practice. Having said that, in both cases, the children figure out within a week how to best use the hands and arms for their purposes.
How do you make this type of hand?
Hengst: The production is not very elaborate. The children can pick the colors of their hand. At the start of the process, we meet with them and discuss their color choices and measure the arm at several points to obtain parameters for the hand. We use them to subsequently scale the hand at home before the individual components go to print. Depending on the size, the printer then takes between 15 and 30 hours to process one hand. However, we don’t print the components all at once but do so successively. We do this to be able to vary the colors and to improve the print quality. We subsequently have to clean up the printed parts and assemble them. Our makers do this manually. Depending on the print quality, this takes between one and a half and three hours.
Although Lars Thalmann, Jan Hengst and Bernice Walter still have some bureaucratic work ahead of them, they hope to make more children happy soon. And the three makers have at least as much fun in their work as the children and young people for whom they make the gripping devices.
Does this mean you don’t actually take over the production yourself?
Hengst: The organization itself only works as a mediator between the affected parties and the makers, that being individuals who have 3D printing options at their disposal. That being said, this is a construct that is due to the legal situation in Germany. If the organization were to officially build the hands, it would be considered a part of the manufacturing trade and we would lose our charitable organization status. At the moment, we – meaning Lars, Bernice and I – share dual responsibilities. On the one hand, we are the organization because we are the founders and board members who handle the administrative part, while we are simultaneously also its only makers.
Having said that, if you would like to join our organization, we would accept you as a maker and put you in touch with affected persons as part of our work as an organization.
You don’t charge any money for the hands. How do you cover your production and material costs?
Hengst: The only reason we are able to give away the hands for free is that it only costs us about 25 Euros to produce one hand. Right now, the three of us still fund the entire endeavor with our own money because we are not yet approved as a charitable organization. Once this is the case, we hope to be able to fund the project with donations. However, the primary goal is to cover the costs of the website, tradeshow appearances or promotional literature for example. Our current plan is for the actual hands to still be funded by the makers themselves.
Why do so many people like to volunteer their time in the maker scene and make their "achievements" available to the public at no charge?
Hengst: The people who are involved in the maker scene are generally people who want to promote progress. Their goal is not to make a profit or money but to encourage development. The best way to do this is to share and communicate your findings with others. The primary notion of the "maker movement" is to move away from monetary ambition and to make things that help people. What’s more, makers are tinkerers and they love to be creative and innovative. Quite often, the appreciation and the gratitude you get from presenting your accomplishments and making them available to others for use or further development is more precious than selling your idea. After all, who wouldn’t like to see his or her little project suddenly turn into a big deal?!