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Brothers craft 3D-printed prostheses for amputees

A man holds a prosthetic hand earlier this week that was produced at the Royal University of Fine Arts using a 3D printer.
A man holds a prosthetic hand earlier this week that was produced at the Royal University of Fine Arts using a 3D printer. Athena Zelandonii

Brothers craft 3D-printed prostheses for amputees

In a cramped room at the Royal University of Fine Arts, two Cambodian-American brothers are printing hands.

Their project, which kicked off last week, is using 3D printers to create prosthetic limbs for 25 amputees in Siem Reap and Preah Vihear provinces. All but two are victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO).

The brothers, Ki Chong, 29, and Ki How Tran, 25, founded Arc Hub, Cambodia’s first 3D printing firm in 2013, but this is the first time they have built prosthetics.

They’re working in partnership with the Victoria Hand Project (VHP), a Canadian non-profit that has provided 3D-printed prosthetic hands to amputees in Guatemala, Ecuador, Nepal and Haiti since 2012.

Joshua Coutts, a VHP engineer, will come to Cambodia next month to train clinic doctors in Preah Vihear and Siem Reap in fitting patients with the prosthetics.

“From an engineering perspective, you always face difficulties with what each region’s preferences are. Whether it be more cosmetic over function, or more function over cosmetics,” he said via email.

According to the Ki brothers, amputees in Cambodia often worry about prosthetics appearing strange and unnatural. “It’s a huge issue here,” said Tran.

In the West customising prosthetics is common. Last year, for instance, actor Robert Downey Jr gave a child amputee a red and gold “Iron Man arm”.

While Arc Hub’s hands would never pass for the real thing, they are lightweight, with a palm, opposable thumb and four fingers that can clasp well enough to hold simple objects, like a water bottle or a fork.

The clasping mechanism works via a cable attached to the wearer’s elbow which triggers when the elbow is bent. “It’s all springs, nuts and bolts,” Tran said.

That was in contrast to older models, which amounted to little more than glorified hooks or clunky, unarticulated reproductions.

One of the benefits of 3D printing hand parts, said Tran, was that it meant builders could continually improve upon designs with ease. All it takes is tweaking the digital blueprint. The printer does the rest.

Another benefit was the costs. Whereas comparably functional prosthetic hand models can cost upwards of $5,000 to make, VHP’s hands cost around $200, labour included, said the brothers.

Each hand, made from ABS plastic (the same used in Legos), takes around 30 to 40 hours of printing time. The hands will be provided to the amputees by late June or July.

“We are just focused on getting this first project finished and doing it well,” Chong said. “Then we can think about doing other things.”

Meanwhile, VHP founder Nick Deschev said in an email that his organisation plans on staying in Cambodia for the “long haul”.

“We are working hard to establish the infrastructure (via equipment), partners (via training), and a team to create a lasting mechanism to produce these devices in Cambodia and get them to people in need.”

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