Custom Prosthetics Get Cool

An Oakland industrial 3D printing and design studio, FATHOM, and online community e-NABLE team up to get artificial limbs to children and people in need around the world.


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Isabella Ibarra calls her prosthetic her "robot arm."

Courtesy of Fathom

In many ways, Isabella Ibarra is like any other 5-year-old girl. She wears polka dots, cruises her neighborhood in Bakersfield on a plastic chopper, and loves the Care Bears. However, due to a congenital condition called amniotic band syndrome, or ABS—a condition in which fibrous bands wrap around a limb or part in utero and cut off circulation to certain extremities—she was born with a right arm that barely extends past her elbow.

Doctors told the Ibarras that due to Isabella’s unique geometry, she would need surgery to ever be considered for a prosthetic. Generally, prosthetics are impractical for children with disabilities. They tend to be exorbitant in price, and casting a small child—whose muscles, bones, and sinew grow at unpredictable, often exponential rates—is Sisyphean; they’d need to be recast every six months. The Ibarras figured Isabella would simply learn to cope with disability.

Early on, she was fine. Confident even. When Isabella turned 4, her mother, Cristina Ibarra, noticed a shift in Isabella’s behavior and demeanor.

“She kept hiding,” Ibarra said. A timid, despondent child replaced the playful, exuberant girl she knew Isabella to be. Soon Ibarra learned why.

“Kids were making fun of her, and she really wasn’t handling it good,” she explained.

Distressed, Ibarra began searching out solutions. One day, Ibarra stumbled across a Facebook page for a group called e-NABLE, a web-based community that connects (mostly) cost-free prosthetics with children in need all over the world. She learned about Ivan Owen, a special effects artist and prop maker from Bellingham, Wash., who, in 2012, created a metal hand for a steam punk convention and, after posting a video of the device on YouTube, unwittingly catalyzed a revolution in 3D printing.

 Owen later teamed up with a South African carpenter to create a functional—if clunky—metal prosthetic hand for a young South African boy named Liam. A friend mentioned 3D printing to Owen, an emerging technology then, and soon a plastic version of the hand was designed and printed with the help of MakerBot, a 3D-printer manufacturer. Owen released the copyright to public domain.

 Liam’s story reverberated through social media, and Jon Schull, a professor from the Rochester Institute of Technology, created a Google-plus community to connect potential prosthetic makers and printers with kids in need. Suddenly, volunteers around the world were lining up to improve Owen’s original design. Two years later, the community is 7,000 members strong and has gotten some 2,000 prosthetics, mostly free, to people in need from more than 45 different countries.

In 2014, Michelle Mihevc, co-founder of FATHOM, an industrial 3D printing and design studio based in Jack London Square, read about e-NABLE online and inquired about collaboration. Until then, most of the community’s devices were printed on hobbyist-level printers and were more or less scaled versions of Owen’s original design. Founded in 2008, FATHOM was on the ground floor of 3D printing, so by this time, the company not only boasted some of the most advanced manufacturing technology around, but also a first-class group of in-house designers and engineers.

About a month after writing e-NABLE, Cristina Ibarra received an email: FATHOM wanted to design a custom prosthetic for Isabella. Soon, the entire Ibarra family visited Oakland to have Isabella’s arm 3D scanned for modeling. With Isabella, the girl whose anatomy wasn’t supposed to be amenable to a prosthetic, FATHOM’s tagline, “Make the Unmakeable,” would be tested.

The company assembled a small group of designers and engineers to create the e-NABLE network’s first elbow-actuated prosthetic model, which posed a significant design challenge.

“This is a fully ergonomic thing that you’re designing. So especially for a child, you want it to fit really comfortably, and naturally on her, and encourage natural use,” said Alexei Samimi, an engineer who worked on the project.

With the high-resolution 3D imaging of Isabella’s arm, FATHOM made a plaster model of the device. Within a few weeks, the team printed Isabella’s prosthetic. Not only was it form-fitting, but perhaps more importantly, it was also dyed pink and engraved with tiny stars, evoking her beloved Care Bears.

Isabella calls it her “robot arm.”

Working with Isabella and e-NABLE has been a transformative experience for FATHOM. It set in place a culture of volunteerism that didn’t previously exist. “People feel good about it, and they want more,” Mihevc said. The company continues to support e-NABLE and is encouraging its peers with extra printing capacity to get involved. The company has also branched out and recently began working with Girls Inc. to provide training and resources for young girls from underserved areas to enter the STEM fields.

It’s the “coolness factor” of her robot arm that’s played a big role in the return of Isabella’s confidence—in fact, Cristina now jokes Isabella may have too much confidence. She no longer hides. At a remarkably young age, Isabella has built an awareness of her disability and takes ownership of it with maturity and grace well beyond her years. Now, instead of making fun, other kids raise their arms for a robot-arm high five.

“My friends accept me. My girlfriends don’t make fun of me,” Isabella said. “I’ve made a lot of friends using it. And now I can make more friends without it, too.”

Published Oct. 26, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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