Accelify Blog

Using a classroom 3-D printer, a teacher built a little boy a prosthetic hand

June 29, 2016

By: Moriah Balingit


High school student Gabriel Filippini was in technology teacher Kurt O’Connor’s study hall when he approached the teacher with an unusual question: Could they use the classroom 3-D printer to build his little brother a hand?

Lucas was born without a left hand and through kindergarten was able to do nearly everything other little boys could, including zipping up his jacket, riding a bike, even gripping monkey bars using his palm. But in elementary school, Lucas encountered a problem he couldn’t solve: He could not tie his shoelaces.

So Gabriel, a rising junior at Loudoun County’s Park View High School in Sterling, Va., and his family had begun exploring getting Lucas a prosthetic hand. They signed up for a donated one from Enabling the Future, an organization that enlists volunteers to use 3-D printers to build hands. Lucas was on the list, but he was getting impatient.

Gabriel, 16, wondered whether there was another way. When he spotted the 3-D printer in O’Connor’s classroom, he decided to approach him with the idea of using Enabling the Future’s free blueprints to build Lucas a hand.

“I told him we could give him a shot,” O’Connor said.

His family members said they are perpetually in awe of how Lucas manages without one of his hands. But they were disheartened when he would complain that his classmates would ask him about it, and Lucas would occasionally ask when his palm would grow into a real hand.

“I wanted to see what he could do with two hands,” Gabriel said.

O’Connor said he was privately skeptical about being able to build a hand for Lucas. O’Connor is a hobby carpenter but was a novice on the 3-D printer and had mostly assigned students to build small puzzles, key chains and fins for model rockets, all far less sophisticated than a prosthetic hand.

But he welcomed the challenge and was moved by Gabriel’s dedication to his little brother.

Gabriel helped O’Connor identify a blueprint and worked to scale the model to his brother’s proportions.

O’Connor spent about 40 hours constructing the hand, meticulously printing out pieces and assembling them; the machine put in about 30 hours of printing as it fabricated the hand’s parts. O’Connor had to scrap two partial models that were too big for Lucas, but he plans to save them so he can build Lucas additional hands as he grows.

Maker Smith, a group that provides space and equipment for high-tech tinkerers and inventors, also helped O’Connor with the project, donating an expensive, flexible material that forms the joints of the fingers.

On Lucas’s sixth birthday two weeks ago, his mother, Romina Barrera surprised him with a trip to O’Connor’s classroom, where he was fitted with the hand for the first time. He reached for his mother’s cellphone, then grasped cups and small boxes before taking a tour of the high school and giving high fives.

It was an emotional culmination of a long journey.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to see that type of excitement or to experience something like that,” O’Connor said. “It was pretty cool.”

The hand attaches to Lucas’s arm with Velcro. By bending his wrist, he can manipulate the fingers to pick things up. On his birthday, he began by picking up small boxes. He is slowly developing the muscles he’ll need to build dexterity, moving on to glasses of milk and stacks of paper.

O’Connor said he hopes to have his students work on prosthetic hands for Enabling the Future so he can teach them engineering while also helping out other children like Lucas. It is precisely the kind of teaching the school district encourages, having students learn through projects while tackling real-world problems directly.

Lucas said the real-world problem he’d like to conquer is the one task that sets him apart from his classmates at Sterling Elementary: tying his shoelaces.