GCU Students Trying Not to 3D Print Prosthetics for Amputees in Rwanda


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Build team members Ethan Nichols (left), Diego Revilla and Denise Delos Santos test the prosthetic’s motor function. The student researchers launched the project after hearing about Rwandan amputees.

It sounds cruel, but actually it’s one of the best things this group of young researchers can be doing. The use of 3D printers to make prosthetics is widely known, from large-scale projects such as e-NABLE to the efforts by one friend to help another. As a result, when students in the Grand Canyon University Research and Design Program learned that a fellow classmate’s mother was a nurse in Rwanda who spent a lot of time with patients whose limbs had been amputated, the first instinct was to develop a low-cost prosthetic that could help those who had lost limbs. As lab supervisor and faculty member Ben Encinas explained:

“We reached out to a lot of the local doctors, just anybody in the medical field, and said, ‘Hey, what are some devices that we can make better for you?’ The student’s mom…she had a lot of people that were amputees. They didn’t have the means to get prosthetics in Africa. They can barely get clean water in that area.”

But one question leapt out at the students as they began to consider taking on a prosthetics project: Why were so many people in that area losing limbs to begin with? The answer provided them with an entirely new take on their ambitions. What would often begin as a minor cut in a limb would lead to an infection that, left untreated, often resulted in the necessity of amputating the limb. The students began to ask themselves if there wasn’t some way by which they could help to prevent the initial infection and thereby eliminate the need for their projects for 3D printed prosthetics.

After much consideration and research, the team decided the path to take was one that would lead to the production of a low-cost 3D printed hydrocolloidal bandage. These types of bandages have a 95% success rate at staving off infection and could drastically reduce the number of patients with wound infections requiring the removal of their limbs. The bandage that the students designed is made of a gel-like viscous material called carboxymethyl cellulose, that pulls bacteria out and does not allow them back into the wound. It was more than a matter of production; the team also wanted to improve upon currently available bandages. It involved a great deal of innovation and a breadth of research, as 3D printing biotechnology research team leader Gabriela Calhoun described:

“The positive impacts of a hydrocolloidal bandage vs. just a regular adhesive bandage is it’s 95% effective in wound infection prevention, whereas the regular bandage doesn’t have any preventions for wound infections…Most bandages out there don’t promote cell regeneration. In ours, we include Vitamin E and certain supplements that help. Our main focus is to promote the healing time without degradation of scarring. A lot of products just focus on getting rid of the wound, but ours is focusing on the whole healing process.”

Along with helping the process of healing, there is a practical component to the creation of a medical bandage using a homeopathic approach. In addition to cutting down on the tangles with red tape involved with drug regulation, those elements are often easier for people to find and therefore might make the production of the bandage more easily undertaken wherever it is needed. But that doesn’t mean they are letting go of the science behind the bandage, as Encinas elucidated:

“A lot of what we’ve done is we’ve decided to go down the path of more homeopathic medicines – things that are not made in a laboratory but things that you can find at organic stores, at the farmers market. We’ve kind of systematically tested and done research on all types of things you can find on homeopathic aisles and then applied the scientific rigor to it.”

Truly a design oriented approach, the students weren’t satisfied with the ‘problem’ as it was presented, but went above and beyond to understand whether or not they were asking the right question. Their ability to think beyond the immediate, first level of the design situation as stated may eventually lead to a significant reduction in the number of limbs lost, something of which they can be justly proud. It also indicates a higher level of thinking that reflects well both on the program itself and on the potential these individual students have to address further issues in the years they have ahead of them.

In the meantime, these students are not content to allow those who have already lost limbs to suffer and have been working to develop a 3D printed prosthetic for those amputees. With the same type of deep thinking, they began by asking themselves how they could ensure they were producing a prosthetic that would actually be functional, rather than just providing them with the feeling of having been charitable. Many prosthetics are put aside because of issues with weight, comfort, and functionality and the team has tried diligently to ensure that those factors don’t impinge upon the devices they create. Calhoun discussed the foundation of the team’s approach:

“A major issue with a lot of the upper arm prosthetics is 90 percent of the people don’t wear theirs currently because of the amount of weight it has and the amount of usefulness. It doesn’t benefit them because most everyday tasks are more difficult to do with their prosthetic limb on…What’s the point of doing anything that you’re used to if you can’t wear it all day? So our attempt is to make it comfortable and cost-effective.”

Denise Delos Santos checks the connections of a 3D-printed prosthetic hand, a project of the Research and Design Program’s 3D printing biotechnology group.

The team is also investigating different types of electronics that could be integrated into their prosthetic in order to increase its functionality for the wearer. The cost/benefit of each added electronic must be carefully weighed as creating more expensive prosthetics means a reduction in the number of people who have access to them or added weight that makes them less comfortable to wear.

Using different settings on the 3D printer, the team was able to make a lighter prosthetic. Also incorporated in the design is lightweight fishing wire.

In addition to the practical aspects of the creation of the bandages and prosthetics, many members of the team are also investigating the ways that such products can be part of a viable business plan. As Encinas noted:

“The students have not only put their neck out there to say ‘Yeah, we can do it.’ They’ve thought about it from a lot of different ways, from a business standpoint – how do we make sure we do it the right way – but from an ethics standpoint and from a research standpoint. They’re looking into not only how to publish and are learning those skills, but they’re also learning how to do product development.”

And best of all, the students seem to be truly enjoying the project, meaning this won’t be the last time that any of them put their mind to solving a problem using 3D printing. In the words of team member Ethan Nichols:

“It seems like something straight out of science fiction, that you can have a thing, put it down and, within a few hours, have an exact replica in your hands. It feels like it shouldn’t be real.”

That passion is possibly more important than the products themselves; after all that’s really the point of education: not to fill your bucket, but to light your fire.

What do you think of this news? Let us know your thoughts; join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below.

[Source/Images: Grand Canyon University]



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