PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – It looks like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle spread out on a couple tables on the campus of the senior school at Shady Side Academy. But, a dozen high school kids in the Service Learning Club aren’t working on a puzzle. They are assembling prosthetic hands that come from a classmate’s 3D printer.
“It is so amazing that Connor has the ability to do this at his house (to) build hands that can change the lives of children,” Shady Side Academy sophomore Leila Skinner said.
Senior Connor Colombo asked the Club at Shady Side Academy to help him assemble the hands. The process starts by breaking the 22 individual plastic pieces apart from the bed they are printed on. Then, they are laid out on a table. Some parts occasionally have to be trimmed, and sharp edges are sanded.
“I was a little nervous when I first saw them,” says Mark Antosz, the co-president of the SSA Service Learning Club. “But, he has done a great job explaining that to everyone.”
Skinner has helped assemble the hands a few times, but is still blown away by what she is doing.
“Just how amazing and like mind-blowing it is that if we can make this, what else can we make?” she said.
Colombo owns and operates a 3D printing company in the basement of his family’s North Hills home. He uses leftover plastic filament from commercial jobs to print the 3D prosthetic hands in his free time.
The idea of printing hands is not his. It comes from an organization called e-NABLE, a community of 3D printer users who design, print, fit and distribute hands and arms for people around the world. They have many different models. While Colombo has concentrated on printing one model, it can be scaled to fit children of any size.
“Most of what I print for people were either industrial prototypes or chotskis or something. It felt cheap in a way, but this adds so much value and potential with a prosthetic hand. It sort of blew me away,” he said. “It was moving for me, I guess, in the sense I had never imagined having a print would have such a profound impact on someone or the potential for that.”
Depending on the size of the prosthetic and the speed of the printer, each hand takes between four and 16 hours to print. After the students complete the assembly, the hands are sent to an e-NABLE facility in the south, where they are fitted with medical pad to keep the plastic from digging into the child’s arm and wrist. Some models receive a leather palm pad. Tension strings are added that allow the four fingers and the thumb to close around any sized object.
Using his printers to provide a helping hand to strangers halfway around the world has become one of Connor’s passions — and that joy is spreading to other students at Shady Side.
“Definitely take for granted being able to tie your shoes or like eating with your hand — so I couldn’t imagine not being able do that or not being able to play sports,” said Antosz, who plays soccer at SSA. “It feels good to make sure that other kids can be able to participate in those things, too.”
“It can really change their lives that they will be able to hold things. It just gives them so many more opportunities to play games and helps them do things and make them feel less helpless, like they can do things on their own now,” Skinner said.
Each hand costs Colombo about $2 in material.
“It’s such a simple feat of engineering — just layers of plastic and yet it can have such a profound impact on the course of someone’s life,” he said.
Some of the children who receive the hands were injured in war. Colombo said others are trying to care for young siblings.
“It’s unfortunately common that they can either get cut or get a hand burned that leads to an infection, that leads to an amputation and then they lose a hand,” he said.
Rarely can those children go to a hospital, work with a doctor and be fit for a prosthetic that costs thousands of dollars. Thanks to e-NABLE — and people like Connor — they don’t have to.
“If you have a condition that is pretty well maintained, you can have it come to you.” Colombo said. “You can reach out and say, ‘Hey, I need a hand,’ and someone will come to you and be willing to lend you a hand, which is fantastic — and I guess in this case, quite literally lend you a hand.”
Thanks to a bunch of kids, some 3D printers and one young man’s desire to put those pieces together.