Jon Schull walked out of the New York Hall of Science auditorium on Saturday morning to a rockstar reception.
Fresh off his presentation about 3D-printable prosthetic hands, Schull was greeted by people wanting pictures, those who passed him their business cards to keep in touch and others simply wanting to thank him for his efforts.
"It has been a trip," Schull told Tech Times during the World Maker Faire New York technology event over the weekend. "The real gratifying thing these days is to be able to tell the story and meet these people."
Two years ago, a web-surfing Schull stumbled upon a YouTube video of a South African carpenter — who lost his fingers in a shop accident — consulting with a puppet maker in Washington to put together a 3D-printable prosthetic hand.
"He mentioned in this video that he was putting the design online in part because they've come to realize that it could be useful for the one in 2,000 children who are born with some kind of an upper-limb abnormality," Schull says.
That inspired the research scientist based out of the Rochester Institute of Technology.
"On a whim, I made a Google Maps mashup and I put a comment on the YouTube video saying, 'If you have a 3D printer and you want to help, put yourself on this map and if you know someone who needs a hand, put yourself on this map.' "
Within six weeks, Schull's map had 70 pins placed on it and his e-NABLE global network of volunteers, using their 3D printers to create 3D-printed prosthetic hands, was born.
In two years the organization counts 6,300 volunteers, who have given out 1,000 3D-printed prosthetic hands free of charge across 37 different countries.
"Word of mouse, even more than word of mouth," Schull says. "We make parents weep, kids smile and nerds rejoice."
The way it works is simple — interested parties email email@example.com and fill out a two-minute form. At the same time, parents whose child doesn't have a hand or fingers email the same address. e-NABLE then asks them to send specific pictures of their hands, which allows the organization to take measurements, so they can custom-fit the device to suit their needs.
e-NABLE then matches volunteers — who either print the hands, help the child custom-fit the hand or a combination of both — with the child in need through its Enable Community Foundation.
For Melina Brown, e-NABLE's director of operations, the process is ultrapersonal. Her son Ethan was born without two fingers on his left hand. Like many parents, she stumbled upon the organization on the Internet. Shortly after becoming a volunteer, her son, now nine, was outfitted with a 3D-printed prosthetic hand called the Cyborg Beast.
Other models the organization makes are called The Raptor or The Phoenix. In the short time that e-NABLE has been around, volunteers have taken the 3D-printed code and built hands that even resemble Iron Man, Wolverine and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so kids could have more fun. All brands of 3D printers can be used to construct these hands.
During the Maker Faire event, Brown gave Tech Times a demonstration of the different hands.
Adds Schull: "The materials [for the hands] are about $40. The time is about two hours of assembly and 15 hours of printer time. It's like a big Lego kit."
Although made of cheap plastic, the hands are sophisticated to the point where kids can use them to grab a tissue or even a quarter off a table. In comparison, a professional prosthetic hand constructed of carbon fiber or an even better material could run anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000.
As far as maintenance on e-NABLE's 3D-printed prosthetic hands?
"They'll break, so we'll fix them, or they'll outgrow them, so they say, 'We need a new one.' We're getting better all the time, so we just make new ones," Schull says. "We're giving them away for free. People find it very rewarding to do that."
Schull adds: "It's early days [for the possibilities of 3D printers]. Right now, we're printing cheap plastic devices, which are lightweight, inexpensive and also fairly brittle. You can now metal plate these things. We haven't yet, but we're likely to."
The organization has been growing so quickly that it launched a pilot program in Haiti late last year.
Mohit Chaudhary, a biomedical engineering masters student at Rutgers University, is one of the volunteers involved in the pilot program.
"We built two arms for two different patients. The need there is more for arms than hands, but a lot of people don't have the funding," he said. "Our volunteers are glad to help. It's encouraging to know that people are really good-hearted people who want to do good, but they don't know how to. This is a really good forum for them because we're all geeks at the end and we all want to help in our special way."
This takes "a helping hand" to an entirely different level.