3D printer provides hand for 2-year-old girl

3D printing technology created a prosthetic hand for 2-year-old Kate Berkholtz.
3D printing technology created a prosthetic hand for 2-year-old Kate Berkholtz.

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - As 2-year-old Kate Berkholtz reaches for a ball at the "Little Gym of Huntsville," technology is reaching further into the future. Jason Hundley, President and CEO of Zero Point Frontiers in Huntsville believes Kate is "...the youngest person that anybody's really made any type of additive manufacturing prosthetic for in the world."

Born with Symbrachydactyly, Kate's hand didn't full develop in the womb. The cause of the congenital abnormality is unknown. Although she's learned to adapt, 3D printing could offer Kate was she was born without. Kate's mother, Jessica, said "We were kind of waiting to see if a prosthetic could come along that could help her do a specific task, like hold a paint brush with that hand or hold onto a bicycle."

Zero Point Frontiers in Huntsville has a 3D printer. It's manufactured by Makerbot and costs around $3,000. Megan Beattie is an engineer at Zero Point Frontiers. Shawn Betts is an intern and engineering student at UAH. The two have been working for the past couple of months to create a hand for Kate.

The technology behind the hand may seem complex, but broken down, it's quite simple. An image is uploaded from a software program onto a memory card, much like the one you have in your camera. To start, the company used a template of a 3D hand that was already out there. Then, they scaled it down to fit Kate's hand.

That design is then picked up by the printer's built in processor and the digital instructions tell the printer what to do. A plate in the printer slowly moves down as hot plastic is sprayed, creating the hand layer by layer. Beattie and Betts then use fishing wire and screws to put the hand together. The total time to make the hand? Less than a day. The cost? Around $5.

It's that price tag that has the interest of parents of kids who need prosthetics. Depending on the type, you're looking at between $25,000-$50,000 for a prosthetic. The problem is, most insurance companies won't pay for a child's prosthetic. They just grow out of them too fast. At such a cheap cost, this might be the solution that families have been looking for, including Kate's.

In early September, Beattie and Betts met up with Kate and her family at the "Little Gym of Huntsville." They had a new hand they wanted Kate to try on. After a little coaxing from dad, Kate allowed the pair to strap the hand on. As all the adults crowded around to see if it fit, Kate looked at her hand with skepticism. She picked up a scarf with it and then swung on a play set, but after about 10 minutes, asked for it to be taken off.

Beattie and Betts concede that it's not the perfect fit just yet and one of their top priorities is making the hand more comfortable for Kate. There's even talk of using a glove to better attach it to her hand. With the future here, 3D printers will become more prevalent, and Kate won't be the only kid on the block sporting a new kind of prosthetic.

Learn more about Zero Point Frontiers here. For more information about Makerbot and their 3D printers, visit their website.

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