Limbitless Transformative Impact
If you are right-handed and have ever had the experience of unknowingly trying to use a pair of scissors designed for someone who is left-handed, you’ve had an insightful venture into what left handed people deal with all the time. You become aware of a world where, at least historically, items were designed for people who are right-handed. Take that experience and multiply it exponentially and you begin to understand what a herculean challenge any physical handicap is. It requires that one not only learn to adapt to a world that is designed for people without those challenges, there are the mental and emotional hurtles of self-esteem and social acceptance that have to be overcome as well.
Now imagine those challenges are being faced by one of your own young children. Like nine-year-old Alex Pring from Groveland, Florida. Alex was born without most of his right arm. He performed daily activities, which most of us thoughtlessly do, using his left hand or with help from his parents. While having to endure questions such as, “Were you bitten by a shark or was it an alligator?” His mother Alyson commented, “It has not only been hard for him, it has been difficult for us too,” speaking for herself and her husband Steve. “We all have had to learn to live with being different.”
Of course Alex’s parents wanted to provide him with a prosthetic arm, but they can cost as much as $40,000. To make it even more difficult, because children so quickly outgrow the artificial limb, almost as quickly as they outgrow their shoes, insurance companies balk at covering the expense. But Alex, like Madelyn from Lynchburg, Virginia and Wyatt from Vero Beach, Florida, not only share similar disabilities, they also connected with some remarkable students from the University of Central Florida. These young engineering, design and medical students, along with a host of student volunteers, heard about these challenges and decided to use their skills to develop an innovative solution.
Global Becomes Local
Albert Manero became aware of Alex’s need through an organization called e-NABLE, an international community of enthusiasts interested in developing and providing 3D printed hands to anyone who needs them, free of charge.
3D printing is the popular term for what is now known as additive manufacturing (AM). In an additive manufacturing processing, successive layers of material are formed under computer control to create the object, much like an inkjet printer forms words or images on paper by applying layers of ink. Subtractive manufacturing, on the other hand, is the process by which 3D objects are constructed by successively cutting material away from a solid block of material. Like a lathe cuts away wood to make a chair leg. The objects a 3D printer makes can be of almost any shape or geometry and are produced from digital model data, a 3D model or other electronic data source.
Albert, a UCF graduate student and Fulbright Scholar now working on his PhD, assembled a dream team of students from a variety of disciplines to respond to Alex’s need. They include Dominique Courbin, another graduate student in mechanical engineering, who is now the director of production and Stephanie Valderrama, described as “the creative director and social architect.” She leads the crowdfunding campaigns and who, with a number of others, formed the organization they would call Limbitless Solutions.
Starting with Alex Pring and his family in June of 2014, Manero and his team began to understand their goal was much greater than building a mechatronic arm. It was fulfilling the lifelong dream of an energetic and optimistic young boy and the dream of countless others like him. After eight weeks of tireless work, trial and error and perseverance, Limbitless was able to deliver their first robotic arm to Alex.
The arm consisted of a fixed elbow, a forearm, and a hand designed with Autodesk Inventor: a 3D modeling software. These were assembled together after being 3D printed at UCF’s Manufacturing Lab. The amazing device comes to life thanks to an electromyography (EMG) sensor which is able to detect electrical pulses from Alex’s right bicep, where the sensor was attached. The EMG sensor and other various electronic components, made it possible for the hand to open and close every time Alex flexes his bicep, responding to his command.
The most remarkable part of the story perhaps is that Limbitless Solutions managed to build this wonderful arm, designed exclusively for Alex, for only $350. Though the arm was given to the family free of charge. The power of 3D printing technology makes it possible for kids to have access to these extraordinary solutions at amazingly affordable costs. In addition, thanks to this remarkable technology, arms can be easily resized as the child matures by reprinting them for as little as $100.
Sharing the Dream
Limbitless Solutions, a 501(c)3, rather than protecting their ideas and breakthroughs with intellectual property patents, puts their plans and software on the Internet for free. Also after delivering their first three arms in the U.S., they were flooded with requests from more than 40 countries. The volunteers who operate Limbitless, all of which are students, build the arms in their spare time using UCF’s engineering manufacturing labs.
Manero, in his thoughtful and understated way, sees an incredible future rising as new technology and this disruptive form of manufacturing advances. “Using stem cells to grow tissue over a 3D printed support matrix could change how limbs and even organs are replaced one day. The technical challenges are great, but the ingenuity and resolve are there,” he said.
The leadership at UCF is equally enthusiastic. “Limbitless Solutions is a prime example of a group of students with the ingenuity to turn an idea into a reality,” commented Dr. Tom O’Neal, Director of the UCF Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and associate vice president of UCF’s Office of Research and Commercialization. Adding, “We are excited to collaborate with them to develop the Center for Applied Biomedical Additive Manufacturing (CABAM) and look forward to seeing how this project transforms biomedical science and the lives of individuals around the world.”
Since the first arm Limbitless made for Alex, their products have evolved dramatically. Their design and artistic team actually works to match the artificial limb to the desires and aspirations of their client. Not long ago Alex received his new arm (as he had outgrown his first arm) styled after the immensely popular Iron Man movie series. The new arm was delivered by none other than the movie’s star, Robert Downey Jr.
Limbitless, isn’t just for children though. Shaholly Ayers has become a well-known model whose mission is to represent diversity on the runway. Born with no right arm below the elbow, Ayers has been featured on the BBC and in the recent Nordstrom Anniversary Catalog. This year she made headlines as the first model to walk the runways of NYFW (New York Fashion Week) with a 3D printed, bionic limb, designed and built by, you guessed it, Limbitless.
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