New York Library Association. - The eBulletin

3D Printing of Prosthetics

by Dana Willbanks, NYLA Communications and Marketing Manager

A growing number of New York libraries have their own 3D printers, used by the library community to create all kinds of interesting objects.  For many patrons the library’s 3D printer is their first experience with this expensive new technology, and offers them a chance to try it out for themselves.

For anyone unfamiliar with this technology that seems to have come straight out of a Star Trek episode, 3Dprinting.com offers this definition:

“3D printing or additive manufacturing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.”

For those of us who don't have an advanced engineering degree, a simpler definition is needed.  NYLA Executive Director and 3D printing fanatic Jeremy Johannesen describes it as "a hot glue gun crossed with an Etch-a-Sketch controlled by a computer".

Library patrons can print objects using software freely available online, creating everything from toys to jewelry to project components for homework assignments to random knick knacks.  In addition to using this technology to print items for personal use, a worldwide movement has emerged that puts 3D printers to work for a greater social good; the 3D printing of prosthetic hands and arms.

e-NABLE is a worldwide community of volunteers that connects those in need of replacement upper limbs with volunteers who can 3D print them.  According to their website, e-NABLE consists of:

"...people who have put aside their political, religious, cultural and personal differences – to come together and collaborate on ways to help improve the open source 3D printable designs for hands and arms for those who were born missing fingers or who have lost them due to war, disease or natural disaster.

The e-NABLE Community is made up of  teachers, students, engineers, scientists, medical professionals, tinkerers, designers, parents, children, scout troops, artists, philanthropists, dreamers, coders, makers and every day people who just want to make a difference and help to “Give The World A Helping Hand.”

The community has grown rapidly and the relatively new (and totally awesome) idea of people printing replacement upper limbs for complete strangers has spread rapidly across the globe.  From 100 or so members back in 2013, to over 3,000 about a year later, to now more than 7,000 and growing, the e-NABLE community has helped over 2,000 people from 45 different countries receive 3D printed upper limbs from volunteers - most of whom will never meet in person.

As with any seemingly insurmountable obstacle - and creating affordable replacement limbs certainly qualifies as such - the dedication and passion of those involved in this movement have shown that it isn't as impossible or crazy an idea as it may sound at first.  e-NABLE makes it incredibly easy to connect volunteers with those who need replacement limbs, find and download the best design files, ask questions and get help from other volunteers, and more.  For individuals who don't have a 3D printer of their own, a resource page lists other options; this list includes libraries, of course!  If your library has a 3D printer and an internet connection, you and your patrons can be a part of this movement.

Examples already exist of libraries jumping at this opportunity to help their patrons help others; in Toronto, grade school and high school aged students used open source software from e-NABLE to print hands in the first-ever "Handathon" at the Toronto Public Library in December 2015.  After 6 hours of teamwork and occasional moments of frustration, quite a few hands were complete and ready to go to the U.S. e-NABLE office for review before being sent out to children in need.

Patrons can also print their own replacement limbs; in the 'innovation space' at the Wilmington Public Library in Wilmington, Delaware, 10-year-old Colin used a 3D printer to create the hand he was born without.  Colin and his family found the software design on the e-NABLE website and, 2 days and about 12 hours of printing later, finally had a left hand.

Wouldn't it be cool for your library to be able to "lend a hand"?

To find out how your library can get involved, visit the e-NABLE website!

Photo - 3D printed hand