For most of us, the idea of a life without one of our limbs is unimaginable. Perhaps even more troubling would be to have a child born without an arm or a leg. Of course, any parent caught in this difficult predicament would pull out all the stops to help their child – lining up to provide them with prosthetics, for example. But, to many families the $40,000 price tag makes this cost prohibitive. Adding insult to injury is that insurance companies balk at covering the expense due to the fact that children so quickly outgrow an artificial limb.
Albert Manero became aware of this need through an organization called e-NABLE, an international community of enthusiasts interested in developing and providing 3D printed hands to those who need them, free of charge.
3D printing is the popular term for what also is known as additive manufacturing (AM). In an additive manufacturing process, successive layers of material are formed under computer control to create an object, much like an ink jet 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 the leg of a chair. 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.
Manero, a University of Central Florida graduate student and Fulbright Scholar now working on his Ph.D, assembled a dream team of students from a variety of disciplines to respond to their first candidate’s needs. The volunteers who operate Limbitless Solutions, all students, build the arms in their spare time using UCF’s engineering manufacturing labs. Team members 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. With these partners and a number of others, the non-profit 501(c) 3 organization they would call Limbitless Solutions was formed.
Starting with one child in 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 energetic and optimistic young children everywhere. After eight weeks of tireless work, trial, error and perseverance, Limbitless Solutions was able to deliver their first robotic arm to a boy named Alex.
Rather than protecting their ideas and breakthroughs with intellectual property patents, Manero and his fellow students put their plans and software on the Internet for free so others could benefit from their innovation. After delivering their first three arms in the U.S., they were flooded with requests from more than 40 countries.
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. The arm, however, 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.