3D printing brings magic to the lives of disabled children

Posted on 3 Aug 2012

Lifting our arms is so much part of human second nature that many of us could not imagine what the world would be like if we couldn’t perform that most basic of tasks. But for one little girl in America that nightmare was a daily reality until 3D printing transformed her life for the better.

Emma Lavelle, now 4, was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (AMC), a rare non-progressive condition which meant her legs were folded up by her ears and her shoulders were turned inwards. As well as causing joint contractures, it means stiff joints and very underdeveloped muscles.

As Emma progressed, she spent much of her first years in casts and undergoing surgery. By the age of two her mother Megan worried that this might lead to further complications with her mental development.

That’s when Megan came across WREX – a device that strapped onto a wheelchair and enabled older children to use their arms. An 8 year-old boy suffering from AMC demonstrated the system at a conference and Megan met with its presenters, Tariq Rahman and Whitney Sample, to see if they could redesign the product to work for Emma.

After a successful trial of the larger WREX system, Rahman and Sample had to considerably scale down the original device and make it lighter so that Emma could carry it. They decided to ‘print’ Emma a WREX system in the form of a lightweight plastic vest by using a Stratasys 3D printer.

As soon as the vest was fitted, Emma began to use her arms and now refers to the system as her ‘magic arms’. Because the vest is printed at Sample’s office, it means that if any parts break or need to be scaled up as Emma grows, they can be custom designed and produced quickly, simply and easily.

The vest proved durable enough for Emma to use in her everyday life and was such a success that another fifteen children have been fitted with custom 3D-printed WREX devices.

For the average person 3D printing may sound like a futuristic ambition but for these children it is an everyday piece of ‘magic’.

Look out for more on how 3D printing is revolutionising the manufacturing process in the September issue of The Manufacturer.