3D-printed prosthetic dreamsIn a small lab in Kathmandu, a group of students are working hard, learning how to use a 3D printer so that they can make a prosthetic arm for a girl they have not even met yet.
In a small lab in Kathmandu, a group of students are working hard, learning how to use a 3D printer so that they can make a prosthetic arm for a girl they have not even met yet. This isn’t their job, but while taking a course in molecular biology at The Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal (CMDN) they learned their instructor, Brian Galloway, was working on a project to print an arm. The students, Satendra Jaysawal, Anuj Baskota, Roman Shrestha and Ritwicq Arjyal were fascinated, and asked if they could help. They have been volunteering their time now for weeks, learning, experimenting, and using that newly acquired knowledge to make adjustments to the machine they helped assemble, all in a patient attempt to try and make a workable limb.
3D printing technology is still very much in its infancy in Nepal, and even internationally, people are continuously learning new things and finding new uses for it. In very simple terms, a 3D printer heats up filament—usually a form of plastic—that is fed into the printer in large rolls, and using a computer generated design it then lays layer upon layer of plastic on the flat printer bed, until an object is built. Small objects, like a centimetre square cube might take half an hour or so; a segment of an artificial arm, 18 hours. It’s fascinating to watch, and amazing to think about the potential of all that can be achieved. There are even 3D printers that can produce objects out of metal. Whatever you can dream up and design or find a ready-made design for, you can make with this new technology.
One area where 3D printers have turned out to be surprisingly useful is in the area of prosthetics. An artificial or prosthetic limb must be perfectly customised in order to be useful to the recipient. In the past this meant that a good quality one could run to the cost of thousands of dollars. In countries like Nepal they are sometimes made using materials like wood, but these are often weighty, cumbersome, and so difficult to use that often the amputees found them more trouble than they were worth.
Children and young people also grow quickly, making a properly customised prosthetic prohibitively expensive. But 3D printers, easily customisable and becoming more accessible, are changing all that. Or at least that’s the dream.
Three years ago Sabita was just like many other 12-year-old girls—doing well in school, helping her family when she was back home, and enjoying hobbies like many girls her age do. Her hope was to study hard enough to become a doctor one day.
All that changed in an instant the day she went up to the roof of her home to collect the laundry from the rooftop lines. She inadvertently touched an iron rod that was electrically charged, and received a shock of over 11,000 volts. By a miracle Sabita survived, but when she awoke in hospital days later, she had lost both her hands.
Now 15, Sabita’s life is different than it used to be—she still studies, but now at the Khagendra New Life Special Education Secondary School in Jorpati. Unfortunately students at her old school made fun of her disabilities. Learning to write again has been challenging, but she has applied herself to learn fast. Principal Raghab Dawadi was the one to recommend her for the prototype 3D printed prosthetic, believing that with her bright mind, she would be able to put it to good use. Of the 325 students at the Jorpati, 125 are physically challenged in some way, and if this works for her, it has the potential to help many others at a very low cost.
Accurate statistics are hard to come by in Nepal, but what we do know is that the country already had a relatively high rate of amputees, mostly from accident related injury, when the April 2015 earthquake increased that number significantly. An affordable, customisable working limb has the potential to make all the difference in someone’s life, enabling them to study, work, and restore a sense of dignity.
It took nearly two months for the team, but finally the first prototype was ready. Using an arm model called “The Isabella” which you can find online from E-nable—a generous and widespread internet community that provides open source prosthetic designs—the many hours of work had produced a prototype. Sabita and her brother visited the lab, and everybody looked on as adjustments were made and improvements discussed. In the end, the team at CMDN decided that a new arm would have to be printed, or at least parts of it, to make it both more comfortable and functional for Sabita. The wonderful thing is that this can be done here, in Kathmandu, and they will keep working on it until it’s just the way she needs it to be. Brian Galloway and the rest of the team at CMDN are in the process of setting up a fully-equipped 3D lab with multiple 3D printers in order to both further train students in the use of the technology and also experiment with the use of the 3D printers in other biomedical engineering applications.
Adapting a new technology for use here in Nepal was never going to be quick and easy. But it’s a great sign of how far things have come that it is now possible. Matt Rockwell and his coworkers at Disaster Hack are also working on providing 3D printed limbs to those who need them throughout the country. The students who worked on the project at CMDN are continuing their education—several of them have already been accepted by US colleges—and they then plan to return, with the goal of working to advance science here in Nepal. There’s a lot to learn abroad, sure; but equally encouraging is the fact that more and more these days, the knowledge, materials and technology are becoming available here, inside the country. People can study, learn and develop, and work to make things better for not only their own lives, but for those who can’t do it for themselves.
The future is bright and looking more so all time.