When Robert Frei’s dad returned from his tour of duty as a Marine in Iraq, he wasn’t the same. Specifically, he was missing the lower part of his right arm that had been injured in a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) attack in 2003. The loss of this limb had an impact both on his father’s daily life and on his interactions with his children, but his son Robert wanted to do everything he could to help put those differences aside. Robert, who has a natural affinity for mathematics and technology, began investigating the possibilities that 3D printing held for turning his ideas into reality and, in an interview with Fox2 News in St. Louis, he described his first forays into using the technology to create assistive devices:
“When my dad was injured in the Marines he wasn’t able to play video games with us for about 10-years and after I created that 3D printed adapter, he was able to play with us full speed.”
The younger Frei quickly realized the potential that existed to help his father in other ways using 3D design and fabrication. Building upon the work done by countless others in the development of 3D printed prosthetics, he began to explore different ways in which he could create a custom prosthetic that would not only allow for a grasping motion, but also control over individual fingers. The project became the subject of his three-month-long senior thesis project, something which his Robotics advisor Derek Ward says is impressive but not unexpected of the senior:
“He knows how to get projects done and come up with amazing things. He’s been on the robotics team for six years now. So, just to watch him go from a 7th grader to a 12th grader, [I am] not surprised he can pull something like this off.”
Frei describes his process as more akin to discovery than invention, as he worked on the project, solutions to the problem presented began to group themselves and point him in a particular direction. He was lucky to have a solid foundation in robotics as well as a access to years worth of open source investigations into the creation of 3D printed prosthetics. Organizations dedicated specifically to the creation of 3D printed prosthetics, such as e-NABLE, often make it a point to share their designs with the hopes that others will continue to build upon their work to create their own prosthetic devices.
While Frei’s accomplishment is impressive, it is not an isolated type of story and students across the country and around the world are taking up the challenge of harnessing the power of 3D printing to create devices for those with limb differences.
Whether doing so out of a generalized concern for the well being of humanity or in response to an individual that they know personally, the impulse is to do good and the culture and mechanisms of advanced manufacturing technologies put the power to do so in the hands of those who need it. In this way, the next generation of innovators is preparing itself to meet whatever challenges arise and to understand the benefits of sharing knowledge rather than partitioning it.
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