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An Interview with Elena Ramirez, Maker of the Aquahand

Given the right direction and opportunity, students can accomplish amazing things. An earnest desire to learn and integration of some technology can also be key to the process of developing something new. Recently we learned about a group of students that took the skills they had learned as students at Lehigh University in the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science and used it to create a device called the “Aquahand”. The Aquahand is an exoskeleton hand designed to help stroke victims with either spastic or flaccid muscle tone who are trying to regain motion or fine motor skills. It also happens to be constructed largely of parts which can be inexpensively printed using a 3D printer, making it a reasonably affordable tool to procure. We were able to get in contact with one of team members, Elena Ramirez, to get a little more insight as to how they came up with the Aquahand and learn about some of the other projects the team has worked on using 3D printing. The interview was conducted via email and the transcript is below.

1) When, how, and why did you come up with the idea for the Aquahand? How did you and rest of your team get started with 3D printing technology? Had any of you had some experience before you decided to design the Aquahand?
We stumbled upon an article of a child using the Robohand, a 3D printed prosthetic hand. As juniors, Colleen Perry, Jeffrey Peisner, and I thought that was awesome so wrote a proposal for Lehigh’s Mountaintop Experience Summer 2014. Our goal was to 3D print prosthetic hands for children as an inexpensive alternative for devices that users rapidly outgrow. In addition, we wanted to design devices that were aesthetically pleasing and fun to use, rather than simply masking a disability. Because devices can be manufactured in a variety of shapes and colors without dramatically increasing cost, 3D printing was the perfect solution.

As we started actually working on our research beginning Summer 2014 (opposed to preparation and proposal writing), we realized the market was pretty saturated with prosthetic hands. Furthermore, Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown, PA, which whom we partnered, rarely saw a child in need of a prosthetic hand. One of our mentors, Marc de Vinck, showed us a video about a little girl with 3D printed exoskeleton arms (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WoZ2BgPVtA0). We thought we could make a greater impact by designing exoskeletons so quickly changed direction. Our exoskeletons are based on the concept of neuroplasticity, the brain&rsquols ability to change neural pathways and synapses due to repetitive motion. This is especially useful in stroke victims, who still have their muscles but need help repairing a damaged part of the brain. For the Aquahand, we drew inspiration from the Saeboflex but thought it valuable to create a 3D printed version. It is primarily for stroke victims with spastic muscle tone. Patients can hopefully regain gross grasp motion through repetitive movement. Including the Aquahand, we have four novel exoskeletons to facilitate movement of the hand and arm.

Jeffrey Peisner (Mechanical Engineering ’15) had experience 3D modeling and a little 3D printing, but Colleen Perry (Bioengineering ’15) and I (Bioengineering ’15) knew nothing of the process prior to our summer research. Because of our bioengineering background, Colleen and I were fascinated at the prospect of applying 3D printing technology to the medical field. A large part of Summer 2014 was figuring out how to use the modeling software and how to design for 3D printing, for which Jeff Peisner was invaluable.

For Summer 2015, we lost Colleen Perry but recruited three new members: Dan Levy (Mechanical Engineering ’16), Emily MacMillan (Bioengineering ’16), and Sam He (Computer Science and Business ’16). Dan had 3D modeling and printing experience, but the rest picked it up during the summer. The best part about Mountaintop is that we decided exactly what we wanted to do and Lehigh gave us resources so we could learn the skills needed to make it a reality..

2) What are the roles each of you plays in the process? Are you planning on formalizing a business or incorporating yourselves?
During Summer 2015, Jeff Peisner, Dan Levy, Emily MacMillan, and I each modeled devices. Dan and Jeff created separate exoskeleton hands for flaccid muscle tone, I made the Aquahand for spastic muscle tone in the hand, and Emily created an exoskeleton to facilitate elbow movement. We were all working towards the same goal of recreating a movement with a 3D printed device, but each went about it in a different way, which was pretty cool. All of our devices are useful because symptoms of rehabilitation patients have a high level of variability. Sam He worked on a code to measure the hand from a picture, which is useful when sizing the devices. There are no plans for incorporation at the moment.

In the comment section of my Thingiverse page (http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:944296) there are links to the other designs.

3) What would you say were the key courses from your undergraduate degree thus far that enabled you to take the design from concept to reality? Are you currently planning on pursuing further coursework towards a Master’s degree or Ph.D.?
Integrated Product Development (IPD) was helpful by outlining the design process and showing us how to create a product from a real-life need. This course also showed us how a collaborative effort creates the best products. Other than that, the Mountaintop Experience was an outlet for us to explore an area of interest that we weren’t able to in our classes.

I want to get a master’s or Ph.D., but first work for a year or two to get some experience..

4) Is this the first object you have designed and 3D printed? If not, what else have you designed and printed?
It was the first but I have 3D printed a few other things since. This includes mainly trinkets, like an iPhone holder.

5) For those parts of the device that were unable to be 3D printed to this point, are you hoping to be able to find ways to print at least some of those objects in future designs or updates?
We wanted to keep as much of the device 3D printed as possible. That being said, I don’t foresee us being able to 3D print any other parts. The non-3D printed parts include the springs, strings, pads, and straps, which are already inexpensive. They can be purchased in mass quantities since sizing just means cutting a longer thread or smaller pad.

6) What type(s) of material did you use to manufacture the Aquahand? What type of printer did you use to make it?
We printed the majority of the device using PLA/PHA plastic. The fingertips are made of a flexible filament called NinjaFlex. The PLA/PHA and NinjaFlex are both made on MakerBot Replicators and Ultimaker printers.

7) Roughly how long does it take to manufacture all the parts needed? Does someone need to have some mechanical skills to put all the pieces together?
The Aquahand takes about 10 hours to print. Assembly takes about 30 minutes and is really easy. However, someone who wants to use the device for a hand disability probably needs help putting it together.

8) What are the future plans for the Aquahand or other items you would like to design?
Jeff and I are moving on from the project. Dan, Emily, and Sam are rising seniors so have the opportunity to continue. We uploaded our devices to Thingiverse. This is a platform to share open-source hardware so hopefully those with a 3D printer can download, print, and use our devices. Open-source sharing allows us to distribute our designs without liability since we aren’t the ones actually manufacturing the devices.

I would love to design medical devices. I eventually want to get into Robotics. This project made me really interested in Neuroplasticity and I think by combining this concept with the robotic field we can improve a wide variety of medical conditions.

9) What do you think high schools and colleges can do better (if anything) to foster efforts related to 3D printing, STEM, or STEAM education for students?
We were determined to make the prosthetic hands but only realized the problems when we started actually doing it, which is why hands-on work is really important. Self-direction is also critical in a well-rounded education. Because we were able to define our own goals, we took ownership of our work and progressed further. Skills like 3D modeling and 3D printing are really easy to pick up, especially when it’s for something you’re passionate about. There were no professors at Mountaintop, but we learned so much.