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Student building a better prosthetic hand at PCC’s MakerSpace
Photos and Story by James Hill
Portland Community College student Jordan Nickerson of Kelso, Wash., is giving himself a hand. Literally.
The 23-year-old first-year computer science major, who was born without much of his left hand, is fabricating his own prosthetic limb that has moving fingers to better grip objects. With a screwdriver and lots of patience, Nickerson has improved upon the hand, which is based on plans and components found in other hand designs. He hopes to perfect his version for production to sell to the world as a cheaper alternative to cumbersome and expensive prosthetics. The model can grasp objects and is made of carbon fiber, ABS and biodegradable corn plastics, Velcro, duct tape and a mouse pad – all at a cost of about $40.
“I have always had a fascination with prosthetics, for obvious reasons since I don’t have a hand,” Nickerson said. “It’s connected by two hinges and I put my arm in the socket and I flex my wrist and the fingers close. All five fingers close at once to make a fist, but with a little bit of tensioning you can make it where the thumb and the index finger touch first so if you wanted to pick up something small, you can.”
Some of the materials and ideas he used to put the hand together were made by the army of 3D printers in PCC’s MakerSpace – a creative lab located at the Sylvania Campus, 12000 S.W. 49th Ave. MakerSpace, coordinated by engineering faculty Gregg Meyer, is an interdisciplinary innovation studio dedicated to the art and science of making things.
“Yeah, It would have been a whole lot harder and way more expensive without MakerSpace,” Nickerson smiled. “That’s something that MakerSpace really saved money on (supplies and access to machinery).”
MakerSpace provided resources
The MakerSpace movement is a new phenomenon spreading across the nation, including the White House where President Obama hosted his first-ever Maker Faire in June. The purpose of the movement is to increase access to technology and education through open shared spaces with tools and equipment. PCC’s MakerSpace offers an opportunity for staff and students to collaborate and bring ideas to life, a place where budding scientists, technologists, engineers, artists and mathematicians can find common ground to collaborate on cool ideas. They have access to the 3D printers and scanners, CNC machines, lasers, vinyl cutters, sheet metal tools, plastic injection molder and even a sewing machine.
“In just six months of operation the MakerSpace has grown from an engineering prototyping lab to an innovation studio serving students, faculty, and services all across campus,” said Gregg Meyer. “I couldn’t be happier with this progression. Students are getting cool jobs as a direct result of their newly acquired maker skills, faculty members spanning several departments have become friends outside of work, and Design-for-Good projects like hard drive crushers for e-cycling, and human powered watering pumps for our community garden are starting to build steam.
“Jordan is parlaying his ‘disability’ into a new business venture using the MakerSpace to design and fabricate 3D printed prosthetic hands; ones that work and fit better than similar devices costing 100 times as much,” he added. “Now that’s a win-win-win endeavor no matter how you look at it.”
The MakerSpace is funded in part by money from the Intel Corporation.
“Having a multitude of resources at the fingertips of students, that’s exciting,” said Janet Rash, Intel’s Northwest Region Community Engagement Manager. “The Maker Movement has allowed companies like Intel to get more creative in how they try to attract interest in engineering and technology careers. I think when you’re doing things, it’s easier to make the leap to what an engineer might do or a computer scientist might do, and the imagination of a student starts to expand.”
New company in the works
Nickerson, who resides in Northwest Portland, fits the prototypical student Meyer is looking to energize. After a few terms studying computers, he met a man at a networking event that had plans created by Jorge Zuniga for a prosthetic hand that interested him. From there, Nickerson, who plans to transfer to Portland State University when he’s done at PCC, began building the hand from those plans at MakerSpace and elsewhere last May.
“I automatically got intrigued with it,” Nickerson said. “I was kind of listening in on his conversation and he whipped out his phone. On it I see the picture and I just walked up to him and asked for it. And that’s essentially how it all started. I saw an opportunity and decided to go with it.”
When the model is refined enough Nickerson plans to market it as the centerpiece of a business plan. He wants to establish a company that builds prosthetic hands on demand through requests he gets from a website and phone app. People would scan their arm and send the measurements to them on email. Nickerson then would print it on 3D printing machines and ship the prosthetic to the customer directly. The cost to the customer he estimates would be $300 and if people buy one he’ll donate another to an impoverished child who needs one.
“If you can afford to buy an Xbox you can afford to buy this hand,” Nickerson said. “The downside with the prosthetic industry is that, when I was a kid, the basic prosthetics were just hooks and they cost around $2,000 to $5,000. And you have to completely manipulate your body to use it. You have to move your shoulder back, throw your elbow forward, and it then opens. It’s super complicated, really annoying and obnoxious to use. And plus its a hook so its kind of intimidating especially when you’re a child.
“With this one, it works with your natural body movement,” he added. “It works on your wrist motion. Since it’s 3D printed it’s extremely lightweight and customizable to that person. Eventually we want to try to reach everyone in the world.”
But for now there are issues as he tries to find the right fit and iron out technical challenges to the hand. “The fingers are kind of a pain in the butt,” he explained, showing off the hyperextended digits.
And he’s quite happy to have found PCC and a space that has spurred his ingenuity.
“I heard that it was one of the best community colleges in the nation so I thought it was a good fit to start out at,” Nickerson added.