A Force for Good

Students use innovation, creativity, and a 3D printer to give people in need a prosthetic hand

Brunda Katikireddy ’24 worked with Naser Al Madi, assistant professor of computer science, to use a 3D printer to make prosthetic hands in the Mule Works Images Innovation Lab. (Photo by Gabe Souza)
By Abigail Curtis Photography by Gabe Souza and Ashley L. Conti
February 7, 2023

The summer after her first year at Colby, Brunda Katikireddy ’24 set an unusual challenge for herself: She wanted to learn how to make a prosthetic hand. 

Her interest had been sparked during an introduction to computer science course taught by Assistant Professor Naser Al Madi, who told the students about a global community that creates free prosthetic hands for people who need them. The community, called e-NABLE, relies on a network of volunteers who use their 3D printers, design skills, and free time to build the devices. Katikireddy, a computer science and mathematical science double major from Durham, N.H., wanted to find a way to join.   

“‘I know nothing about 3D printing or prosthetics or anything like that, but I would be super interested in getting involved in whatever way I could,’” she remembers telling the professor after the class. “I wanted to be part of something that was more hands-on.” 

That summer, she and Al Madi talked about how to start an e-NABLE chapter at the College. Before their bid could be accepted, they needed to build a prototype prosthetic hand to prove to the organization that they had the tools and knowledge necessary. The professor printed out the parts in Maine and sent them to her home in New Hampshire. 

“I spent that summer figuring out the best way to build that prototype. I watched a lot of videos and did a lot of trial and error,” Katikireddy said. 

And when she returned to campus that fall, she brought a fully completed prosthetic hand with her. It meant that Colby’s student chapter of the e-NABLE club, the only chapter in Maine, was on its way. 

A global movement

That was great news to Al Madi, who had learned about the movement when he became involved in the global 3D-printing community.

“It’s a very good cause, and it kind of motivates discussion about computer science for humanity, or humanitarian computer science,” he said. 

Although it’s not widely known in Maine, e-NABLE has been a force for good in the world for more than a decade. It began by chance in 2011 when American puppet maker Ivan Owen created a functional metal hand to wear to a steam-punk convention and shared a video about his creation on YouTube. A South African carpenter who had lost fingers in a woodworking accident happened to see it and wondered if Owen could help him design a functional replacement for one of those fingers.  

Despite the distance, the men collaborated, researching prosthetic devices and using commonly found objects to create a prosthetic. As word of the project spread, others reached out, including the mother of a 5-year-old boy who was born missing the fingers of his right hand. The men worked to build the boy a new hand, which became the original e-NABLE hand, according to the community’s website

Since then, the project has grown. Roughly 40,000 e-NABLE volunteers from 100 countries have built free hands and arms for an estimated 15,000 people, many of whom live in places with little to no access to medical care. 

What the volunteers do can help a lot. Without insurance, a cosmetic prosthetic hand can cost around $5,000—a sum of money unreachable for many people. As well, children grow out of their prosthetic devices very quickly. 

“For a family to drop $5,000 every year or so to get a new prosthetic for a kid is obviously very unsustainable for some families, so the prosthetics that we make are really helpful,” Katikireddy said. 

Finding unique solutions 

Last year, for their first project, she and Jasper Loverude ’24, another founding member of the Colby e-NABLE chapter, created a custom prosthetic for an Arizona child who had only a thumb and pinky finger on one hand. It wasn’t a basic design, so they couldn’t simply download plans and size them correctly for the child, Al Madi said. 

Parts of a 3D printed prosthetic hand are seen after being printed in the Davis Science Center in January. The new e-NABLE club at Colby is dedicated to printing 3D prosthetics to help people in need, especially growing children, who may need multiple devices each year. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

“It required somebody to think about a very unique solution for this very specific case,” the professor said. “It was a very, very hard case, and they did a very good job on it.” 

The students got measurements from the child, printed the parts with a 3D printer, and then got creative in assembling them. Because of the particular challenges posed by the hand, they used a cycling glove, a sewing kit, and fishing line to connect the 3D-printed parts. Although the family ultimately chose not to use their design for the child, it was still a good experience, Katikireddy said. 

“It was so great to have a person we were able to talk to, and we could see the direct impact that we were having,” she said. “It was a good learning curve for our first case.” 

With plenty of need in the world, and more committed students such as Katikireddy to take up the cause, Al Madi is excited for the future of Colby’s e-NABLE chapter. 

“We have some goals. We definitely would like to deliver some of these hands to people. We also want to train people on 3D printing and 3D design,” he said. “I think the community is growing relatively quickly and that a lot of students are interested in this humanitarian computer science direction.”