As 3D printers grow in availability around the world, so too will affordable 3D-printed products. And one of the more innovative and life-changing devices that makers are printing is prosthetic limbs. With access to a 3D printer and the right parts, do-it-yourself printed, plastic prosthetic limbs are becoming a cost-effective way to give amputees a new lease on life.
Grade 12 SMUS student Andrea Chan is hoping to make life for amputees easier, too, by setting her sights on creating an affordable and inconspicuous way to significantly improve the gripping ability of 3D-printed prosthetic hands. Her award-winning research up to this point recently earned her a trip to the Canada-Wide Science Fair next month in Fredericton, NB.
“Right now, to improve the grip of a 3D-printed prosthetic hand, you have to buy this really expensive glove to go over it – they can be $400 each. Our project was to find a cheaper other plastic to use that can grip better, that’s easy to make and that’s easy to colour,” Andrea says. “Colour is very important because it means you can match skin tones, which means you won’t stick out in the public if you’re wearing it.”
Andrea worked with Lambrick Park Secondary student Matt Treble on the project, which won the pair second overall at the Vancouver Island Regional Science Fair at the University of Victoria earlier this month. They also won the JASCO award, the Alexa Geminiano award (for being repeat science fair winners), the Division for Women in Science and Engineering award, and an award from the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of B.C.
Andrea and Matt are no strangers to the science fair world. The pair has worked together in four consecutive science fairs, earning four consecutive trips to the national contest. In previous years, they focused their projects on improving reading comprehension in children – this time they wanted to their work to be at the complete opposite end of the science spectrum.
“We were looking for a new project and we had never done engineering before, so we decided to try that. We asked Ann (Makosinski) if she knew anyone in an engineering department that could help us develop a project, and her dad connected us with the Biomedical Engineering Lab at UVic,” Andrea says. “The engineers there are working on a project in Guatemala, testing out a 3D-printed arm. The one part of the project they didn’t have time for was improving the grip and finding something that was easy to make. … They were really great helping us when we needed it, but the whole time they were saying, ‘Do what you want; we’re not going to tell you what to do.’ So we’re really passionate about this because it was all us.”
The first part of the project is now complete. Through trial and error, and test after test, Andrea and Matt determined VytaFlex Urethane is the best material to use for their project. Not only does it grip well, but it’s also a cheap alternative to the $400 glove and it can be coloured to match skin tones without the dyes leaking or fading.
Before heading to Fredericton, Andrea says they now hope to determine the best way use the VytaFlex Urethane to improve grip – that may be in the form of a full glove; it might be small pads on the 3D-printed hand where, when it’s gripping an item, it contacts that item; or it might be something else entirely.
Andrea, who hopes to pursue a career teaching Middle School science, says she loves that science fairs allow bright kids a chance to have their hard work seen by professionals working in different scientific fields.
“I’ve learned how to talk in public, I’ve learned how to be outgoing, and people older than me are listening to me. The judges are actually impressed by the work you do; you’re treated like an adult or an equal, in a sense,” she says.
As a student who has earned repeated success at science fairs since Grade 9, Andrea offers this advice to other students interested in participating: “Go with your gut and be passionate about what you want to get through. No matter what result you get, it’s a great result because you worked so hard to get there.”