New Maker Space Summer Fellowship Challenges Students to Prototype Prosthetics
Due to COVID-19, the College’s first ever Design + Making Collaborative had to be run virtually, but that didn’t keep its three student participants from creating utensil-holding devices for a double amputee via a partnership with E-Nable.
Summer 2020 was scheduled to be the inaugural year for the Design + Making Collaborative (DMC), a paid, immersive, six-week design, prototyping, and digital fabrication fellowship run out of the Haverford VCAM Maker Arts Space. When spring classes, and then summer internships, were forced to go online due to COVID-19, some of DMC’s student fellows were worried that the program--which relies on technology in the campus Maker Space and hands-on work--would have to be canceled or postponed. But Kent Watson, Maker Arts technician and coordinator, plowed ahead to ensure the DMC would not only launch, but also thrive.
"I do think this fellowship was incredibly successful, given the circumstances," said Ryan Quenemoen ’23, one of the three Ford fellows selected from many applicants for the first cohort of this new summer opportunity. "Kent did a great job making it still happen and, fortunately, most of this work is done on a computer anyways."
As it’s imagined, the DMC partners each year with a different local community organization as a way to connect students and their design skills to organizers who need help solving a particular problem. For its launch, that partner was E-Nable, a nonprofit that provides 3D-printed prosthetics to those in need. This summer’s fellows, Quenemoen, Chengpei Li ’22, and August Muller ’23, were tasked with designing and prototyping a prosthetic device that could hold utensils for a double amputee known as Mr. K (for privacy reasons).
"There is so much need for good design, and that is particularly true for communities with disabilities," said Watson. "I wanted students to see that they could contribute to the built environment, learn from nonprofits and community members, and become excellent designers and creative thinkers along the way."
The team spent the first three weeks of the program remotely learning Fusion 360, a 3D-modeling program, and other software. They also met online with medical students from E-Nable, who shared the scope of the problem and project, and researched Mr. K’s needs and the related existing products on the market.
“[Mr. K’s] two main complaints with his current makeshift device were that he frequently worried it would break and that it restricted his wrist movement,” said Quenemoen. “He had portions of all four of his limbs amputated a year ago, but he still had his right wrist joint and a large portion of his right palm,” which meant existing products wouldn’t work with his specific anatomy.
Then, from their homes across the country--Quenemoen in Houston, Muller in Salt Lake City, and Li in his apartment near campus--the students started creating their own designs. They first made prototypes with household items, such as paper, cardboard, and aluminum foil, eventually modeling their plans in Fusion 360. They would then send those models to Watson, who printed them in the Maker Space and mailed them back to the students to test and refine.
"My first design was made with aluminum foil from my house because I didn't have any other prototyping tools at the time," said Li, a physics and environmental studies double major. "Although that prototype was not functional at all, it really gave me a lot of insight into what works and what doesn't. I followed that up with a working prototype that I tested on real food. I felt very confident about this design, so I proceeded to model it in Fusion 360 for 3D printing. At this point, I also got interested in some carpentry work and added a dovetail joint to my design so that the utensil could be switched in and out often."
“Because I was participating remotely, it took a lot more time and resources to get a prototype, so I really had to think smart about what I was making and the problems it would have without being able to physically test that I was right,” said Muller, an aspiring engineer. “Getting feedback from other people in the program helped with this, because everyone would look at these designs from a different angle and suggest different ways to improve. I also had to get pretty creative in ways to test ideas without a version of my actual project--at almost every meal, I would try holding my utensil in different ways to simulate how it could be oriented using my device.”
"The two biggest challenges to this project were making sure the design attached firmly and comfortably to Mr. K’s uniquely shaped palm and that the device could firmly hold utensils," said Quenemoen. "I ended up relying mostly on velcro straps to fit his hand and came up with a plate that is tightened by two thumbscrews to clamp down any utensil. Once I was confident in the device’s functionality in these areas, I was able to play around with the design. … I slowly minimized the material as I went away from the idea that I had to recreate what Mr. K once had visually to give him what he once had functionally. Instead, especially after hearing about how much personality the removable plate creates, I started thinking about it as more of an accessory and ended up with a very sleek and modern design."
Though each of the students created their own prototypes, they regularly met virtually as a group with Watson and the E-Nable team to offer feedback, critiques, and encouragement to one another.
“Feedback was extremely helpful and necessary for this process,” said Quenemoen. “I probably have at least 20 designs that all built off each other to get to the current one.”
“[It] helped immensely in improving all the things in my design that are ideal in software, but unrealistic in the physical world,” said Li.
Though the six-week program has ended, students will be able to continue working on their prosthetics this fall, which will be particularly helpful as all but Quenemoen will be on campus and able to work directly with Watson and the technologies in the Maker Space.
“The models require more work, but ideally the prosthetics can be fitted onto the patient, who would then give us feedback on needed modifications,” said Watson. “Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, students are not currently able to work directly with the patient and our contacts at E-Nable also have limited access.”
The process from prototype to product may be a bit longer than anticipated, but all participants were unanimous in their praise for the new program. The three students said they learned a lot, grew their skills, and are committed to continuing to refine their prototypes for their client.
“I’m glad this fellowship was still able to have happened, and I had a great time learning so much about design, digital fabrication, prosthesis, and so much more,” said Quenemoen. “It was really gratifying to see all the progress August, Chengpei, and I had made by the end of such a short period of time, and I am sure it will be even more so if we are able to get our designs to Mr. K."