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17-year-old student creates 3D-printed hand for friend

The prosthetic hand is designed to look like it is from Star Wars. Source: Shutterstock.

As a child, Alex McMillian was obsessed with building, creating Lego structures only to tear them down again and start anew.

Now 17 years old, he is no less interested in making things but has graduated from fiddling with plastic bricks to something more adult: building prosthetics.

The senior at Ruffner Elementary School recently printed a 3D prosthetic hand for his 11-year-old friend Evan Hines, who was born without fingers or the majority of his palm on his left arm.

Despite the age gap, the pair formed a friendship quickly at the “Good News Club” at their school.

“He’s not ashamed of his hand, per se,” McMillian explained to Charleston Gazette Mail.

When he decided he wished to create a prosthetic hand for his friend, he knew he wanted it to be special, focusing it on Star Wars, which he and Hines bonded over.

“My thought was, I was going to 3D print him a hand, but I didn’t want it to look like a hand. I wanted it to look like something he would be super proud of.”

The hand is painted gold, covered in robotic wires and designed to look like Star Wars character C-3PO.

“He asked if I wanted a superhero, I said, ‘No, ‘Star Wars’,” Hines told Charleston Gazette Mail.

McMillian used a template wrist-enabled device he found on e-NABLE, a web-based community of volunteers who create free prosthetic hands. While he did not design the hand himself, he scaled it almost identically to Hine’s right hand and spent hours assembling, adapting and moderating it.

After around 18 hours work in which McMillian assembled around 30 pieces of the 3D print and constructed a functioning grip with fishing wire and elastic, the hand was complete.

It enables Hines to grab objects although the fingers do not move independently.

McMillian was able to use the school’s 3D printer for free and spend just a small amount of money ensuring the device worked; fabric fastener, screws, fishing wire and elastic. e-NABLE estimates each device would cost up to US$8,000.

“For children especially, prosthetics are so expensive,” McMillian said.

“They’re going to grow out of it in a year or two years, and parents can’t keep up with that financial burden all of the time.”

Making the hand has spurred McMillian on in his two-year engineering course and perhaps even his future career. Since he surprised Hines with the hand, McMillian immediately started looking for improvements and began working to make them.

He now has his very own 3D printer, which he received as a Christmas present.

“Since then, I have become a lot more interested in prosthetics in general,” he said. “I think because of that, I might be looking further into biomedical engineering.”

McMillian claimed it is just like building “adult Legos.” “I was loving every minute of it,” he said.

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Watching Hines receive it was reward enough. “He uses it for fist bumps a lot. That was the first thing he did when I gave it to him. He was like, ‘It works! Fist bump.’ It was so cute,” McMillian said.

The student is already planning his next project which his teacher, Adam Drake, said should be his own design.

“I wasn’t at all surprised that he wanted to do something philanthropic,” Drake said, explaining McMillian is a keen student with a warm heart.

Drake claimed he questioned McMillian on the future and what would happen when Hines inevitably grows out of his hand.

“I will just print him a new one,” he answered simply.

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