Penn State

Penn State team puts hope within reach for kids with upper limb deformities

Penn State junior Ryan Lo, far right, shows Isaac Rose, 11, Annabelle Rose, 12, Liliana Rose, 7, and Alexander Rose, 11, a 3-D printed prototype hand during a Digi Digits workshop Monday at Happy Valley Launch Box in State College.
Penn State junior Ryan Lo, far right, shows Isaac Rose, 11, Annabelle Rose, 12, Liliana Rose, 7, and Alexander Rose, 11, a 3-D printed prototype hand during a Digi Digits workshop Monday at Happy Valley Launch Box in State College.

Guadalupe longs to play the violin.

Like many musically inclined third graders, she is a willing student. But unlike her peers, she is — at this point — unable to play.

It’s neither for a lack of talent nor motivation. Guadalupe, you see, was born without her left hand.

But thanks to a group of Penn State students, her dream may soon be within reach.

“This girl has wanted to play the violin since she was little,” said Kristen Einthoven, the president of Digi Digits. “The main focus with this design is that they can be reprinted when they grow out of one, and it’s maybe a $10 or $20 fix versus a $100 or $1,000 fix.”

Digi Digits, which formed last year, designs 3-D-printed prosthetic-like training devices for children born with upper limb deformities, which affect 1 in every 2,500 babies born in the United States each year. According to the CDC, those affected may have difficulty with developing normal motor skills, growing socially due to their appearance and participating in activities like sports or, in Guadalupe’s case, music.

And prosthetics aren’t cheap. Most are regularly $5,000 or more. The most expensive can get up to $100,000.

Holding onto hope, then, becomes a Sisyphean task.

“When you have a kid who is growing constantly, then they have to be refitted as well,” Einthoven said. “It’s not economically feasible for a lot of people.

“So people all over the world have been finding solutions with 3-D printing.”

Enter Digi Digits. The team works with e-NABLE, an open-source network dedicated to creating 3-D-printed hands and arms for children in need, and through them were connected with families like Guadalupe’s.

On Monday at the Happy Valley LaunchBox, Einthoven and her team demonstrated their creations as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week at Penn State, which is organized by the Penn State Small Business Development Center. The workshop drew interested peers besides a few students who were Guadalupe’s age.

Gathered around the table of colorful parts and doodads, Liliana Rose, 7, slipped on one of the prototypes and tested its strength. She listened as Einthoven explained how the 3-D-printed hand could help kids who were different, but who were also in many ways just like her.

“The thing that is really fun about it is you can give a kid something they’re proud of,” Einthoven said. “I saw someone on e-NABLE designed a ‘Despicable Me’-themed hand, and this kid loved it because he loved ‘Despicable Me’ and all his classmates loved it.”

The group, for instance, is also working with Colin, a boy who wants a color-changing hand that also glows in the dark. They’ve been working with him for more than a year. After New Year’s, they hope, they’ll have a new hand for him.

“We would love to have something for him over Christmas break,” Einthoven said, smiling.

Ryan Lo, a junior architecture major on the team, showed Liliana’s twin brothers Isaac and Alexander how the hands worked. Made up of about 15 different parts, the hands only cost about $50 to make.

“I think they’re kind of similar to Legos,” said Isaac, an avid Lego enthusiast. “Like you could build a Lego hand similar to this, but you couldn’t make it move in the same way.”

By comparison, two Lego Classic Creative Building Sets cost about $60.

“I thought it was just cool to create something but also for a cause,” Lo said.

Carolina Carlton, the family relations correspondent for the Digi Digits team, joined the team as a freshman. The biomedical engineering major said she originally joined for the research aspects, but that changed as she began to work with the families of the end users: the kids who will benefit from the team’s creations.

“It sounds like really simple to just design a hand and give it to somebody,” she said. “But just hearing what Colin needs, getting information for designs — it just opened my eyes.”

Less than a month ago, the team was contacted by Guadalupe’s music teacher. Since then, they’ve set to work, trying to gather measurements and navigate every crevice and curvature of a forthcoming mold. Using design software, they’ll draw up a model and set to work on tweaking and tuning it to her specifications. Though there are thousands more like her, Guadalupe is unique. Her hand is, and will be, one-of-a-kind.

With it, she’ll be able to hold the violin’s bow.

Einthoven, who is interning for Silicon Valley 3-D-printing startup Carbon during the summer, said her own background drove her to study mechanical engineering and the field of prosthetics. A runner, she’s used to the freedom of movement. She said she wants to give that feeling to others.

“I want to continue this line of work,” she said. “This is something I’m really excited about.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy