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Lending a helping hand

Summer is usually the time students take a mental vacation from their studies; maybe go on a road trip, or pick up a new hobby. Jeff Powell, a recent biomedical engineering grad from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), obviously never got the memo about taking a break. In the course of one summer, he taught himself the ins-and-outs of 3D printing, began sketching ideas for an affordable prosthetic hand, and had a working prototype before the summer ended.

This story may have developed in the basement of Phillips Hall — where Powell spent countless hours connecting his ThinkPad to the university’s 3D printer — but it really begins with Holden Mora, a 7-year-old boy in Chapel Hill who was born without fully formed fingers on his left hand.

“I had been looking for ways to do something that would help others, as I have always been appreciative and grateful of the help I’ve received from family and professors,” said Powell. “In learning about Holden’s situation, and how expensive prosthetics cost, I started thinking about ways to solve the problem through technology.”

The exorbitant cost of prosthetics is a high enough hurdle for most parents, but then there’s the fact that children are constantly growing, meaning the artificial limbs must be frequently replaced. So Powell not only needed to find an innovative workaround, he needed an answer that would work in the long term. That’s when he turned to additive manufacturing.

“3D printing has come a long way in a short time,” said Powell. “The printers used to be these massive, expensive things, used mainly in car manufacturing. But now, it’s an incredibly quick and affordable form of production — we can design a full prosthetic hand for about $20 worth of materials.”

When you’re working on an eight hour 3D print, all it takes is a split-second malfunction to completely ruin your model. That’s why Powell trusts his ThinkPad to get the job done. Plus, it’s fantastic for running all of the open-source programs Powell has used to educate himself on the diverse and ever-evolving world of 3D printing.

After many hours in the lab, numerous failed experiments, and countless hours on his ThinkPad educating himself on open-source community forums, Powell had a working model for Holden. But the issue remained: how can he move this technology from a temporary fix to a permanent solution?

“To solve that problem, I realized I could start a student group at UNC,” said Powell. “It would give students community service hours, great technological experience, and most importantly, provide a steady stream of new devices for those who need them.”

Since its inception, the program has evolved into a self-sustaining club, with two other chapters opening at North Carolina State and Durham Technical Community College, as well as a nonprofit called The Helping Hand Project that Powell manages with other board members. By establishing a nonprofit outside of the school, he’s able to raise funds for the programs, and accommodate people who aren’t students but still want to help out or volunteer their time to the project.

Though Powell has moved from designing to a more administrative role, he can’t help himself from getting his hands dirty once in awhile. “We’re working on more personality and customization for the kids — we’ve even made a prosthetic that glows in the dark,” said Powell.

Beyond the aesthetics, Powell is designing job-specific devices. Meaning, if a child wanted to ride a bike or play the trumpet, he or she could swap in components depending on the task.

In building all of these unique devices and getting them out to the community, Powell quickly realized he was unintentionally building a support group. As a wonderful side-effect, his efforts have spawned into a organic social work and therapy group, for parents and children alike.

“While it wasn’t initially in our minds, our support side has grown to be as valuable as the hands we provide,” said Powell.

Whether it’s through innovative technology, mentoring in class, or simply providing a safe space to talk, Powell has found an amazing and sustainable way to offer a helping hand to those in need.

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