Printing, Prosthetics and Possibilities

With the way that technology speeds along these days, it’s hard to keep track of what is being created, discovered, and produced. But of all the advancements that are currently changing our world, 3D printing is perhaps one of the most well known. 3D printing is a bit like the light bulb—everybody knows what it is, but few people really know how it works. Luckily, Duke has its own student-run 3D printing group, the DukeMakers, that is innovating 3D printing right on campus and is able to provide some insight.

So how does 3D printing work? The DukeMakers describe 3D printing like a glue-gun. Start with the material you want to print your object with—in the case of the DukeMakers, it’s acrylonitrile butadiene styrene plastic (think the plastic that Legos are made from). Feed that material into the “glue gun” (a.k.a. the printer), where the plastic is melted and the outline of the object is laid down. Then the process repeats itself one layer at a time until the desired object is completed. The DukeMakers does all of this in its space in the North Building with the help of seven 3D printers—some of which have even been 3D printed themselves.

3D printing is an international phenomenon. Around the world people have 3D-printed cars, houses and even vaccines.


“You don’t need a whole factory. With 3D printing you can culture your own cell, get your own kidney. It’s just the way 3D printing is headed,” Trey Bagley, Trinity ‘16, said.

It was not long after 3D printers were invented that someone realized how well-suited 3D printing was for printing prosthetic limbs, primarily hands and fingers. And while high-tech prosthetics can be very expensive, those that are created via 3D printing are usually more affordable with prices that range between $20 and $50 per prosthetic.

Enter DukeMakers. Soon after DukeMakers’ conception a little over a year ago, the group was approached by a Duke faculty member and friend who requested that the team build a prosthetic hand for his son.

You don’t need a whole factory. With 3D printing you can … get your own kidney.

“When we first got started on the project we found that 3D printing prosthetic hands was an open problem waiting to be solved. Several groups such as e-NABLING the Future already made a lot of headway in the 3D design and iteration. Our goal was then to first replicate their open source solution, and then build upon it,” said Owen Haung, Trinity ’16.

e-NABLE, the aforementioned company, is the frontrunner in 3D printing prosthetics. e-NABLE capitalized on the fact that, while the advanced prosthetics try to masquerade as authentic human limbs, 3D prosthetics are not able to do so. Here, e-NABLE embraces that difference, making each limb as colorful and clearly robotic as possible. The company goes so far as to name some of their designs the Cyborg Beast, the Raptor Hand and the Talon Hand 2.X.

For the DukeMakers, the actual construction of the hand was no problem at all. In just 20 hours, the team printed the final prosthetic hand in a classic black-and-white color scheme. The challenge, it turned out, was trying to get the limb to move through Electromygraphy, otherwise known as EMG. Essentially, the DukeMakers wanted the movement of the hand to be catalyzed by the electrical activities of the boy’s skeletal muscles, specifically the flexing of the forearm muscles.

“In the end we were able to make a physical prosthetic actuated by wrist rotation. However, we’d like to see it working with an EMG and motor system,” Huang said.

Despite the fact that the DukeMakers managed to create the limb that moved via wrist rotation, the team is still working on the project. The group is looking to improve the prosthetic hand model as much as possible so that when the boy grows and needs a new prosthetic, he will have one that works better than before.

“I really like seeing that we can make things that have a real impact. It also really emphasizes the DIY aspect of it all,” Bec Lai, Trinity ’16, said.

As if that were not enough, a Duke medical professor recently approached the DukeMakers about 3D printing surgical mesh. This is another indication of how 3D printing could further revolutionize the medical world. Typically, surgical mesh is used in abdominal surgeries to support the recovering tissues. It must be biodegradable, yet sturdy and still porous enough for macrophages (a type of white blood cell that digests foreign substances) to enter and kill potential infections. The medical professor has a polymer that might hold all of these qualities and he is looking to partner with the DukeMakers to see if that polymer can be 3D printed.

I really like seeing that we can make things that have a real impact.

“The first step is to turn the custom polymer into a filament that a 3D printer can extrude. From there, we can attempt to create different 3D structures to test their strength,” Huang said.

Although the DukeMakers has a clear plan, it remains unsure about the ultimate success of the mesh, as obstacles are arising in its plan to turn the polymer into filament (following the hot glue stick analogy—the glue stick), extrude the filament (melt it and squeeze it out of the glue gun) and have the filament layer itself. Despite this, the group is determined to make the project work and looks forward to collaborating with this professor in addition to other research departments at Duke.

I wonder if you could print a human?

“No matter how you see it, 3D printing will be integral in the future” Ying Wang, Trinity ’16, said.

And the DukeMakers certainly believes this to be true, especially in regards to the impact that 3D printing will have on the medical world.

“I wonder if you could print a human? Just print all the organs and then attach them. It could work,” said Lai only half-jokingly.

Ying is thinking along the same lines as Lai, but he doesn’t see this seemingly impossible idea as a joke at all.

“If I wasn’t constrained by my own intellect, I would want to design my own organs and then connect them for certain tasks,” Ying said.

From printing prosthetics to experimenting with medical innovations, the DukeMakers is having an impact on the larger community inside and outside of Duke.


Photographer Henry Warder
Editors Tracy Huang & Raina Bisson-Orr
Web Design Diana Lam

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