Tinkering for Change: 12th Grader’s Universal Fit 3D Printed Prosthetic at 2024 Regeneron Competition

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This year’s Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS), the nation’s oldest and most famous science competition, has brought 40 candidates into the limelight, all competing for $1.8 million in prizes. Now in its 83rd year, this competition celebrates the ongoing search for knowledge and new ideas. It has kick-started the careers of some of the world’s renowned scientists and innovators, including 13 Nobel Prize winners and 21 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipients, and founders of big science companies like Regeneron.

Among the finalists is Arav Yash Bhargava, a high school senior from The Potomac School in McLean, Virginia, who has made a size-adjustable, 3D printed prosthetic socket for people who have lost an arm. This prototype is quite attractive because it can be made for less than $40, yet it’s almost as strong as existing prosthetic devices (which usually cost thousands of dollars) and can offer great comfort to the user.

The Potomac School’s 12 grader Arav Bhargava. Image courtesy of Arav Bhargava.

Bhargava’s invention tackles a huge problem in world health. Nearly 40 million people in poorer countries need prosthetic limbs, but this need is not always met due to the high prices and custom fittings needed by traditional prosthetics. By making an affordable, one-size-fits-all socket, Bhargava hopes to greatly improve access to prosthetic limbs, especially in low-income countries with rare resources.

3DPrint.com caught up with Bhargava before he traveled to Washington, D.C., for the Regeneron competition’s finals week, where the group of competitors will be narrowed down to the top 10. The 12th grader shared insights into the hard work behind his prosthetic socket project. “It took around 300 iterations to perfect the design,” Bhargava said. He also delved into his technical challenges, including mastering Autodesk’s Fusion 360 CAD program, a vital tool for his design process. Bhargava then found that the Ultimaker S5 3D printer and TPU material matched perfectly. “Using the Ultimaker S5 made a big difference; it worked smoothly without any problems,” he recalled.

“I created a prosthetic that can adjust the size to fit any trans-radial amputee perfectly. It uses two key mechanisms. First, it has dials like those on bike helmets, which let you tighten or loosen the fit around the arm. Then, to make sure both arms are the same length, I added a mechanism similar to how you can adjust the length of a crutch. This makes the prosthetic comfortable and perfectly matched to the user’s body,” explained Bhargava.

3D printing prosthetic limb. Image courtesy of Arav Bhargava.

The prototype offers an accurate custom fit for a wide range of limb sizes, allowing users to adjust both size and length. This new approach challenges the usual way of making prosthetics and shows an understanding of the needs of people who use them. Early tests by two volunteers have been very positive, with users saying they feel a lot more comfortable than with standard prosthetic sockets.

Inspired by his work teaching swimming to kids with disabilities at Arlington County Adaptive Aquatics, Bhargava has shown he’s committed to using his engineering abilities to make a real difference in other people’s lives. Bhargava’s development was the result of a deep interest in the high-tech prosthetics field, enriched by an internship at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, a leader in developing and fitting unique prosthetic devices that use microprocessor-controlled knees and ankles, myoelectric upper limb prosthetics, and advanced socket technologies that improve comfort and mobility for amputees. Bhargava also shadowed professionals in the field and even created a podcast series about prosthetics with interviews with amputees, Olympic Coach Bill Endicott—who began an operation to help the thousands of amputees in need of prosthetics in Ukraine—and Matthew Carty, a renowned surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who developed a revolutionary surgical method that enables amputees to use bionic prosthetics with natural limb-like responsiveness by preserving the natural signaling between the patient’s muscles and brain. The National Public Radio (NPR) award-winning podcast was a great way for Bhargava to learn more about the field, he says.

3D printed prosthetic limb. Image courtesy of Arav Bhargava.

At the heart of Bhargava’s project is a shocking fact: nearly 40 million amputees in poorer countries can’t get prosthetic limbs, with only 5% able to pay for them. This challenge is widely recognized by global health organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), which constantly highlights the wide gap in access to essential rehabilitation services, such as prosthetics, in low- and middle-income countries. The WHO and other health organizations point out that the main barriers for these amputees are the high cost of prosthetic devices and the lack of available specialized healthcare services to fit and maintain them.

There are ongoing efforts to address this need, with several organizations working towards making prosthetics more affordable and accessible to those in need worldwide. For example, e-NABLE, a global network of volunteers, uses 3D printing to create free prosthetic hands and arms for those in need, relying on local fabrication to cut costs. Similarly, the Range of Motion Project (ROMP) explores 3D printing to provide high-quality prosthetic care to underserved populations. Not Impossible Labs innovates in various humanitarian fields, including creating prosthetics for people in conflict zones and developing countries through 3D printing. Mercy Ships, known for its hospital ships, also provides prosthetic limbs, incorporating 3D printing to improve services in developing nations. Other initiatives like Mobility Mozambique focus specifically on using 3D printing to offer affordable prosthetic solutions locally.

The Potomac School’s 12 grader Arav Bhargava’s 3D printed prosthetic limb is being used by an amputee. Image courtesy of Arav Bhargava.

By leveraging design software and 3D printing, Bhargava’s prosthetic socket is affordable at less than $40. It can adjust to fit many different arm sizes without needing a professional to fit it. This game-changing design has already been fitted for comfort and shows great promise. It works well and supports weight with two amputees with completely different residual limb sizes. Bhargava hopes to mass-produce his development using 3D printing farms and ship them to amputees who need them or work with a non-profit organization already working in developing countries to provide innovative prosthetics.

As the Regeneron STS gets closer to choosing its ten finalists, enthusiasm builds for young innovators like Bhargava, who have the chance to present their breakthroughs on a grand stage, along with competing bright young minds. The finalists were chosen from 2,162 qualified entrants based on their projects’ scientific rigor and potential to become world-changing scientists and leaders. Encouraged to explore and solve complex problems through scientific projects, the competition not only offers finalists a way to gain recognition but also shows how their work can positively address some of the world’s most pressing challenges. This decades-old event is an ideal conduit to emphasize the importance of innovation and empathy among young people.

The Potomac School’s 12 grader Arav Bhargava with his 3D printed prosthetic. Image courtesy of Arav Bhargava.

The 40 finalists will participate in a week-long competition from March 6 through 13, 2024, where they will undergo a rigorous judging process and have an opportunity to interact with leading scientists and share research with the public on March 10, both in person and virtually. The top 10 Regeneron STS 2024 winners will be announced during an awards ceremony on March 12, streamed live from Washington, D.C. Each finalist will be awarded at least $25,000, with the top 10 awards ranging from $40,000 to $250,000, solely to be used for educational purposes.

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