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From Michigan to Ghana: 3D Printing for Hand Rehabilitation

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In low-to-middle-income countries, access to quality rehabilitation services is often limited. In Ghana alone, approximately 650,000 individuals suffer from hand and wrist injuries that impact their daily lives, and less than 50% of those in need have access to the rehabilitation care they require. To address this critical gap in healthcare, the William Davidson Institute (WDI) at the University of Michigan has developed the GripForté, a low-cost, 3D printed hand rehabilitation device slated to have a significant impact.

Whether due to the cost of medical care, scarcity of specialized equipment, or logistical difficulties, many individuals who suffer from hand and wrist injuries struggle to get the treatment they need to lead an everyday life in Ghana. Without adequate rehabilitation, these individuals face ongoing pain and disability, hampering their ability to work or engage in everyday activities.

Designed to be lightweight and affordable, the GripForté weighs just 1.5 lbs (0.7 kg) and costs $14.77 to manufacture, allowing patients to strengthen their grip, flexion, and pinch as they continue hand/wrist rehabilitation. It has interchangeable 3D printed resistance springs, enabling tailored, patient-specific rehabilitation regimes.

University of Michigan College of Engineering

Initially conceived by a student team at the University of Michigan, the GripForté results from a highly collaborative effort between the university and the WDI. After identifying an unmet medical need for a low-cost rehabilitative device for hand and wrist injuries in Ghana, the student team from the university’s Mechanical Engineering Department worked to design an initial prototype.

The project took into account valuable input from a Ghanaian Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) physician. Simultaneously, WDI coordinated another team of student interns to conduct a market analysis specific to Ghana, revealing that hundreds of thousands of people suffer yearly from hand and wrist injuries. This compelling business case reinforced the urgent need for an affordable and effective solution.

While innovative, the original prototype of the GripForté had several challenges to overcome. Its manufacturing cost was $1,477 per unit, largely attributed to its wooden construction, which also made the device heavier. Additionally, the prototype relied on rubber bands to create resistance for various exercises, a material that is not widely available in Ghana due to factors such as import costs, limited local demand, and economic constraints.

Faced with these cost and material limitations, WDI sought alternative design solutions. Two aerospace engineers from the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering were brought on board to leverage 3D printing to redesign the device. Among the key contributors was David Sharp, who earlier this year worked with the university’s Waas Research Group and WDI. Tinkering under Professor Anthony Waas, Professor Emeritus of Aerospace Engineering, Sharp was integral to designing a lightweight and affordable prototype that could meet the unique needs of patients in Ghana.

Through this collaborative and problem-solving approach, the team was able to drastically reduce both the cost and weight of the device, leading to the current, far more accessible GripForté prototype.

Spearheading initiatives to improve healthcare in low-to-middle-income countries (LMIC), the WDI is an independent, non-profit research and educational organization. Dedicated to fostering economic and social prosperity in these nations, WDI maintains strong affiliations with the University of Michigan even though it is not an official part of the institution. Claire Hogikyan, the Vice President of Administration at WDI, leads the team that collaborates closely with the College of Engineering and healthcare professionals to develop impactful projects, including the GripForté.

In a social media post, WDI President Paul Clyde said, “The 3D printing area is relatively new to WDI as part of our commercialization efforts to bring ideas from concept to market in LMICS. We value our partnership with U-M College of Engineering – Mechanical and Aerospace – where the concept and prototype for the hand device originated and was further refined.”

In collaboration with the university’s Global Health Design Initiative, the Aerospace Engineering department, and a doctor in Ghana, WDI is actively iterating on the device’s design with an eye toward commercialization in a Ghanaian rehabilitation facility. The latest prototype, produced using 3D printing technology, is currently undergoing field testing in the sub-Saharan country.

As part of its future plans, the organization aims to make the device even more accessible and user-friendly. It targets reducing the manufacturing cost to under $10 per unit and decreasing the weight to less than 1 lb (0.45 kg) to make it more portable.

Furthermore, WDI plans to leverage 3D printing not just for the device itself but also for the bolts required for its assembly and the springs with increased elasticity. This will streamline the crafting process and potentially lower costs. In addition to these advances, WDI intends to expand the device’s functionality by adding alternative panels that allow for various new exercises. As a nod to environmental sustainability, WDI is also exploring the possibility of using recycled materials, like polyethylene terephthalate (PET), in the manufacturing process, thereby reducing cost and waste.

In countries with limited healthcare resources, the flexibility and customization provided by 3D printing can turn into life-changing innovations. The technology offers a cost-effective and scalable way for healthcare providers to equip themselves with the tools to deliver quality care. In light of this, WDI’s GripForté is a great example of how technology can be applied for the greater good.

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