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3D printing community rallies to create $5 hand for kid

Young Leon McCarthy showed off his latest prosthetic hand at the opening of MakerBot's second 3D printer retail store

November 22, 2013 11:07 AM ET

Computerworld - BOSTON -- Leon McCarthy is just like many other 12-year-olds. He loves sports and cool technology.

The difference for Leon is that cool technology has allowed his family to use a 3D printer to create a prosthetic hand that they otherwise couldn't afford. And, with that hand, Leon can catch a football.

Leon showed off the third iteration of a hand made of $5 in plastic material at the opening of 3D printer company MakerBot's second retail store in Boston on Thursday.

3D printed hand
12-year-old Leon McCarthy shows off his 3D printed hand, which cost about $5 in materials to make on a MakerBot 3D desktop printer

Due to a congenital birth defect, Leon has no fingers on his left hand. Until recently, doctors told his family he shouldn't even consider a custom-engineered prosthesis due to the high cost -- $10,000 to $80,000 depending on quality.

About a year and a half ago a friend of Paul McCarthy, Leon's father, purchased an industrial 3D printer for his product design company. He told McCarthy he believed it could be used to create an inexpensive prosthetic hand.

3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) works by laying down consecutive layers of materials -- plastics, ceramics or metals - from the bottom up to create an object. The printable objects, created in a computer-aided design program, are sliced into many layers by another computer program, which tells the printer head where to deposit materials on the printer table.

CAD designs, which come in the .stl file format, are abundant on the Internet and can be downloaded mostly for free. The .stl format stands for stereolithography -- using an image for object fabrication.

Paul McCarthy downloaded a free design for a "Robohand" posted on Thingiverse, the most popular website for sharing CAD files. With that, and about $150 in parts, Leon's first prosthetic hand was printed.

South African carpenter Richard Van As, who'd worked with Ivan Owen, a special effects artist and puppeteer in Bellingham, Wash, created the original prosthetic hand blueprints.

Van As had accidentally cut off his fingers on a table saw and found Owen after viewing his YouTube video about developing a mechanical puppet hand.

The original prosthetic hand design was functional but not aesthetically polished.

"We called it Frankenhand, because it had bolts and screws sticking out of it," Paul McCarthy said.

Earlier this year, National Public Radio published a story about young Leon's first printed hand. The article caught the eye of Bill Sullivan, a science teacher at a charter school near the McCarthy's hometown of Marblehead, Mass.

Sullivan had recently used a grant to obtain a MakerBot desktop 3D printer the McCarthy's they could use the machine to create new prosthetic hands.

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