CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Alex McMillian, 17, has always loved to build things.
As a kid, he would assemble Lego kits once according to instructions. Then, he would demolish and design a new structure.
His love for Legos never disappeared.
But instead of toy ships and helicopters, Alex is interested in the assembly of something new, something useful — prosthetics.
A senior in Capital High School’s two-year engineering course, Alex recently 3-D printed a prosthetic hand for 11-year-old Evan Hines, a fifth-grader at Ruffner Elementary School.
Evan was born without fingers and most of his palm on his left arm.
Evan knew Alex through the Good News Club at Ruffner. The two bonded over their love of “Star Wars.”
“He’s not ashamed of his hand, per se,” Alex said. “My thought was, I was going to 3-D print him a hand, but I didn’t want it to look like a hand. I wanted it to look like something he would be super proud of.”
He printed him a robotic-looking hand, painted gold and complete with wires. It was designed to look like C-3PO, an android character from the epic space opera.
“He asked if I wanted a superhero, I said, ‘No, ‘Star Wars,”” Evan said.
Evan averages about 24 points a game in basketball, plays pitcher in baseball, loves video games and can handle a lightsaber almost as tall as himself.
He has never known life with a hand, which has made using the robotic-looking one a little difficult. He owned a prosthetic hand before, but it was only meant to look like a hand, not function like one.
The 3-D-printed hand is strapped around Evan’s wrist and operates by clenching into a fist when Evan presses it.
“He’s still getting used to it,” said Evan’s mom, Tara Bartlett. “Giving him a second hand is like giving us a third hand.”
Evan often wears it to school and uses it for simple tasks, like holding a water bottle. It can hold a few pounds of weight, but the fingers cannot move individually.
Alex did not design the device himself.
While researching prosthetic hands, he came across e-NABLE, a web-based community of volunteers that uses 3-D printers to create free prosthetic hands for those in need. Chapters of the group exist all over the world.
The group estimates its devices are the equivalent of a prosthesis that would cost up to $8,000. After printing the hand for free using the school’s printer and materials, Alex only spent money on fabric fastener, screws, fishing wire and elastic to help it function.
“For children especially, prosthetics are so expensive,” Alex said. “They’re going to grow out of it in a year or two years, and parents can’t keep up with that financial burden all of the time.”
Through e-NABLE, free templates of hands designed by volunteers can be downloaded and printed in pieces using most 3-D printers.
Alex chose a wrist-enabled device on e-NABLE’s website and scaled it to a size nearly identical to Evan’s right hand.
Over the course of about 18 hours, the hand printed into nearly 30 pieces for Alex to assemble.
He used fishing wire to help the fingers contract and elastic to pull it back into a resting handshake position.
“If you’ve never used this hand for grabbing, you have no reason to push down, and so the muscle right here is super weak,” Alex said, pointing to his left wrist. “I made it so that the rest position was further back, and so he had more of a range of motion to push it. And then I made the elastic way longer, so it wasn’t pushing against him when he was trying to grab.”
He completed the project within a week, working on it constantly in class and at home.
“In the middle of building the hand, I was like, ‘This is why I’m enjoying this; this is my childhood. I am making adult Legos,'” he said, laughing.
“If I hadn’t set myself a hard deadline, it would have taken longer. But if I didn’t enjoy doing it, it would have taken a lot longer, but I was loving every minute of it,” Alex said.
Alex surprised Evan with the hand one night and asked him to play with it before he made adjustments.
“He uses it for fist bumps a lot,” Alex said. “That was the first thing he did when I gave it to him. He was like, ‘It works! Fist bump.’ It was so cute.”
Evan cannot hold a pencil with the hand, but he can use it to balance his video game controller and hold some items.
To Alex, the idea of the hand is more important than what Evan is able to do with it. He wanted Evan to be proud of the device.
“He’s going to be using that for a while, and even when he outgrows it, I hope that he keeps it and thinks, ‘I remember that awesome thing that my buddy Alex made for me.'” Alex said. “Every minute of it was worth it.”
Since giving Evan the hand, Alex has started troubleshooting what could help it function better.
His teacher, Adam Drake, said his next project must be his own design.
“I wasn’t at all surprised that he wanted to do something philanthropic. He’s just a good guy,” Drake said. “Initially, of course, I said yes. I just wanted to see if he could do it, just as a challenge, but then, also, I was excited to see if he could pull it off.”
However, Drake questioned what Alex will do when Evan grows out of it.
“I will just print him a new one,” Alex said.
He received a 3-D printer for Christmas.
“Since then, I have become a lot more interested in prosthetics in general,” he said. “I think because of that, I might be looking further into biomedical engineering.”
Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.