You don’t have to be an expert in 3D printing to have heard about its contributions to the creation of prosthetics for humans and animals the world over. While the fact that 3D printing is being used to create prosthetics is old news, what is interesting in each of these stories is the way it is allowing people to help each other on an unprecedented scale. 3D technology has put the provision of assistance within reach of the everyday individual and each one of those stories is one of compassion, caring, and the can-do spirit that is worth telling.
At a Honda plant in Anna, Ohio a group of employees recently demonstrated just what was possible when they came together to provide a prosthetic arm for their colleague Tony Leonard. Leonard was born with a rare spinal condition that had plagued him with problems since childhood. A surgery helped to strengthen his legs but, unfortunately, he later contracted an unrelated infection that left him with such a severely damaged elbow that, after numerous attempts to surgically address the issue, the only option became amputation. The combination of his damaged legs and the imbalance created by his missing arm confined Leonard to a wheelchair, something which seemed particularly unjust as he had undergone such lengths to improve his ability to use his legs.
His colleagues normally dedicate themselves to the design and manufacture of parts for cars, but found that with some research they could combine their talents to produce a working prosthetic for Leonard. It was manager Frank Kahle who first came up with the idea and worked to assemble the team that could produce the prosthetic. He surprised engineer Les Bowers, but Bowers agreed to work on the project, as he explained:
“I am an engineer for parts for cars. How am I going to build an arm? I’m not a doctor, you know. We done a lot of research on it and figured out that we can do this.”
Kahle had faith in the project from the beginning, as a result of what he had seen 3D technology do, stating, “Knowing the different technologies that we have, the scanning and the 3D printing, it was pretty obvious to me that we were capable of doing it.” Team member Richard Crawson developed a stand for Leonard to use while they scanned his arm and Susie Bowles, employed in purchasing, used her connections and know-how to source parts for the prosthetic.
The team built six arms in total, each time making an improvement on the prior model. Using the skills of electrical engineer Corey Howard, they were able to create a hand that could move and be more than just an aesthetic component. It was a truly collaborative effort, both among members of the team and between human and tech, as team member David Macke, who was nicknamed MacGyver, described:
“Everyone’s got a certain talent. And by theirselves, they could do pretty good. But when you bring a whole group of people with different talents together, that’s when things start clicking. There’s some things that computers and machines can’t figure out, it just takes experience, and I have the knack to visualize beforehand what something is going to look like.”
As a result of the team’s cooperative efforts, Leonard was able to walk for the first time in two years. The culture at Honda is one that celebrates such collaboration and rather than ignoring the effort or critiquing the team for working on a project not specifically advancing Honda’s production, as would be the instinct at some companies, instead Honda recognized the culture of companionship that this both fostered and represented. At the company’s yearly conference that showcases problem solving at its factories the world over, this team was given the top honor.
The most satisfying aspect, however, wasn’t the recognition they received from the company, it was the ability to help their colleague and friend to lead a happier, fuller life. In the words of Richard Crawson, “We’re not a bunch of coworkers. We’re kind a family over here.” This was a gift that went above and beyond the normal support provided in a working environment, as Leonard effused:
“I was totally surprised by how stable I was at first. I was excited. My adrenaline was pumping. And I was happy. They got me out of this chair. How do you thank the guys for doing that for you? Only thing I can think of is continue to get stronger and use the very product they provided for me.”
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