Phil DiFrancesco looked down and marveled at the little cabinet that softly whirred and hummed as it built up pieces of his son’s new right hand in layers the thickness of a human hair.
“Modern technology,” he said. “Wow.”
How else do you sum up a world in which a microwave-sized machine that costs about as much as a fancy television lets a class of high school girls build your sports-and-outdoors-crazy 12-year-old son a prosthetic hand?
For free? In his chosen N.C. State crimson?
The DiFrancesco family – Phil; his wife, Lynda; son Matthew, who is getting the prosthetic hand; and Matthew’s younger siblings, Abigail and William – traveled from Franklinton to Durham on Monday morning to visit the class at City of Medicine Academy that was building his prosthetic hand with the help of a 3-D printer. The machine is much like an inkjet printer that can build up precisely shaped three-dimensional items by squirting layer after layer of molten plastic in shapes dictated by a computer.
The academy is a Durham magnet school for students interested in careers in the medical and health professions. The students even wear scrubs to class as a kind of school uniform, color coded by class year.
The class that’s building Matthew’s prosthetic is called “Disease and Society,” which is taught by Vance Kite. Kite put a proposal for a 3-D printer on the online charity site DonorsChoose.org, which matches teachers’ projects with potential donors. He got the printer this past summer.
And now his students are learning about prosthetic design and fitting, as well as 3-D printing.
Matthew, who was born without a fully formed hand, watched the machine work awhile and checked out the futuristic, action-heroish design of hands that had already been printed. He said the first things he will try with his hand are throwing a baseball, playing basketball and seeing how it helps his drawing, another favorite activity.
“I think it’s going to be really cool, and I’m really going to like this,” he said.
“I feel like this is the happiest year of my life.”
Printing the prosthetic hand is just as exciting for the 11 students in the class, who by coincidence are all girls, juniors and seniors.
The class is a public health elective that the school asked Kite to develop. It has no tests and no quizzes, but the students are graded for their work on some serious projects, such as delving into the public health effects of obesity or some of the nastiest Medieval epidemics, such as bubonic plague.
The hands are their fourth of the year. Matthew won’t be the only recipient: also getting hands will be a 5-year-old named Jonny in Wasco, Calif., and 8-year-old Tehran, in Canton, Ohio.
The hands come in colors, and Jonny, who already calls it his “robo hand,” went for red and gold, the colors of the cartoon superhero Iron Man. Tehran wanted a red-white-and-blue Captain America look.
The class is working on the project with a group called E-nabling the Future, an online network of volunteers that develops designs for relatively inexpensive prosthetics, then gives the designs away free so that anyone with a 3-D printer can build them.
It also promotes the idea of printing the prosthetics in classrooms as a learning experience.
The general idea is to help any kid who needs one, including those in developing nations and even war zones such as Syria.
The hand that the class is building is a mainstay design, but the nonprofit also is developing more elaborate prosthetics, including a new motorized arm that costs about $350 to build.
The futuristic hands such as those the class is building require just $20 to $30 in materials, Kite said. Much of the materials were donated, and the recipients won’t have to pay anything.
The hands are designed to grip with all the fingers at once when the wearer bends his wrist.
They are simple when compared with computerized prosthetics that can cost more than $40,000, but still have more than 20 parts that must be printed.
The printing takes about 35 hours, depending on the size of the hand. Then they must be built up with padding, fishing line-like string and elastic bands.
The families getting the hands and the students mainly communicate by email, working out things like measurements and colors.
As school projects go, this one is remarkably engaging, said Coralia Fangmeier, 17.
“I was really interested in it because how many times do you get the chance to help someone and also learn from it?” she said. “We were assigned a child, and you just get this personal connection because you’re changing a kid’s life.
She said that Jonny sent a short video saying how excited he was by the idea of getting a new prosthetic.
“That really makes it special, because you’re changing a kid’s life,” she said.
Jamia Robertson, 16, nodded in agreement.
“We’re tied to Jonny for the rest of our lives,” she said.
The goal for the class is to have all the hands printed and assembled by Nov. 10, then to get them to their new owners in December.
The inexpensive nature of the hands makes them well-suited to kids who could quickly outgrow them.
The class is actually building two copies for each kid, one of which is 5 percent larger for the child to grow into. Or use as a spare.
“They are growing, and also they are kids and it is plastic, so a second hand is a good idea,” Kite said.