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Engineering internship at NCCET helps high school students change a 6-year-old’s life

LENOIR—A high school internship at the N.C. Center for Engineering and Technology (NCCET) in Lenoir has helped a 6-year-old gain a hand.

Will Kennedy, a high school senior at Discovery High School, and Patton High School senior Blake Holden are interns at NCCET, a collaboration of business, government and higher education institutions, including Appalachian State University. They developed a 3-D printed prosthetic left hand for James Lutton of Lenoir. James was born with symbrachydactyly, which restricts the growth of the hand in the womb, something that happens once in about 32,000 births.

View larger imageThis is an early prototype of a 3-D printed hand manufactured by high school students at the N.C. Center for Engineering and Technology (NCCET) in Lenoir. Appalachian State University is one of six universities or community colleges affiliated with the center. Photo Courtesy of NCCETView larger imageBlake Holden, left, and Will Kennedy, right, help James Lutton attach his new “hand” to his left arm. James was born with symbrachydactyly, which restricts the growth of the hand in the womb, something that happens once in about 32,000 births. Photo by Tiffany Fields/Observer News Enterprise.View larger imageJames Lutton adjusts his new robohand, based on the Cyborg Beast 3-D digital hand design developed by the Creighton University Research Group. The hard plastic mechanical fingers enable James to grip and pick up objects. Photo by Tiffany Fields/Observer News Enterprise.View larger imageJames Lutton, center, raises his hand that was created at the N.C. Center for Engineering and Technology in Lenoir by high school students Blake Holden, left, and Will Kennedy. James, who was born without a fully formed left hand, now can grasp objects thanks to the robohand that attaches to his left arm. Photo by Tiffany Fields/Observer News Enterprise.

He received his 3-D hand, which provides the ability to grasp objects, Nov. 19.

James’ mother, Nikki Lutton, contacted NCCET Director Dr. Sid Connor requesting assistance after reading about 3-D printed exoskeleton hands being created for children like her son. She had pursued prosthetics for her son, but costs exceeding $20,000 are prohibitive for a 6-year-old who may outgrow the device in six months. Materials for a 3-D printed hand can be less than $300.

The interns identified appropriate materials and processes to provide a custom-fitted hand that will provide some functionality so Lutton can complete daily tasks. They were challenged with creating a hand that was proportional, comfortable, safe and somewhat durable to survive a 6-year-old’s activities.

Because of his interest and experience in 3-D printing, Kennedy served as project engineer. He and Holden have been mentored by Connor, who also is a professor in Appalachian’s Department of Technology and Environmental Design and engineering technologist Randy Burns, who also works at Appalachian.

The students identified several 3-D models for this type of hand and discovered early on that the Robohand 3-D printed hand was not the best solution for James. The students reviewed the Raptor, Flexy Hand2 and the Cyborg Beast. The students opted for the Cyborg Beast and developed an interface for James’ hand that would provide comfort without interfering with functionality. The hand functions strictly on mechanical motion with no interface with the nervous system.

While a “robohand” may resemble a prop from a “Transformers” or “Terminator” movie, the skeleton-looking hard plastic mechanical fingers can enable individuals to grip and pick up objects.

Kennedy and Holden prototyped several models of their “robohand” to better understand the issues with the hand and its functionality and researched various materials and methods to create a hand for Lutton and develop a method to attach it to his arm.

The interns learned about research and parametric modeling. As part of the design process, they researched materials and processes to make the best fitting and most comfortable device.

Learning about the biometrics of James’ arm-palm connection to the 3-D printed hand helped the interns choose the best methods for processing materials that would not interfere with the mechanics of causing the fingers to move appropriately. They also were challenged with the limitations of movement of James’ wrist.

The interns cast a mold of James’ hand, created a model of his hand from that mold and then cast support materials to provide a comfortable and functional interface between his arm and new hand.

“Being an intern at NCCET has given me a multitude of opportunities to learn and gain hands-on experience with 21st-century technologies, technologies that I would otherwise have very limited access to,” Kennedy said. “Throughout the course of this prosthetic hand project, I have had to learn or practice skills ranging from mold making and casting to laser scanning parts onto the computer.”

James participated in the project by helping the students identify components in early prototypes that limited function in the hand.

His mother wrote Connor and the students that, “James is a little shy around new people but talked nonstop on the way home about how cool the robot hand is. He insisted on sending the pictures to our family and his friends at school. All of you have a special place in my heart and wanted you to know how wonderful you are.”

“This has been an excellent opportunity for these high school students and has provided a great service to the family of young James to give him capabilities beyond what he has experienced to date,” Connor said.

“This experience at NCCET has changed my creative thought process and developed my problem-solving skills, but the most prominent thing in my mind about interning at NCCET is that it has given me the opportunity to have a great impact on an individual’s life,” Kennedy said.

The N.C. Center for Engineering and Technology provides facilities for applied research in engineering related fields and serves as a conduit to baccalaureate education delivered by the University of North Carolina system schools.

About the Center

Conceived as a community-supported higher education effort in technical and engineering disciplines, the center was established through a collaboration of business, government and higher education organized as the Future Forward Economic Alliance. In addition to Appalachian, schools involved in the center are Western Carolina University, UNC Charlotte, Catawba Valley Community College, Caldwell County Community College and Technical Institute and Western Piedmont Community College.

The center may collaborate with other schools in bringing the best programs to the region to meet the employment needs.