Project Daniel and the World’s First 3D-Printing Prosthetics Lab

Last week, the 2014 International CES conference in Las Vegas unveiled a startling new project that has the health technology world buzzing with excitement. Not Impossible LLC, a California media and technology company, presented a series of talks on its newest endeavor, Project Daniel. Equipped with 3D printers and Ultrabooks, the company has been supplying prosthetic arms and hands for amputees in the Nuba Mountains, a war-ridden area within South Sudan.

Intel Corporation, one of Project Daniel's main sponsors, helped thrust Not Impossible into the spotlight at CES this month by sharing one of its major presentation slots with Mick Ebeling, the CEO and founder of Not Impossible.

As one might guess, Not Impossible has a history of tackling the “impossible” projects. Its most publicized creation is probably Eyewriter, the eye-tracking glasses that allowed the famous graffiti artist TEMPT (paralyzed by ALS) to draw and communicate using just his eyes. The device, which was developed with free and open-source software, earned one spot in TIME magazine's “Top 50 Inventions of 2010” and another in Gizmodo's “Eight Incredible Health Innovations that Transform Lives.” And transforming lives has a lot to do with the company’s purpose and mission statement. Their dream? “Technology for the sake of humanity.”

The company website elaborates on the theme. “By collaborating with a growing community of creative makers and hackers, we utilize crowd-sourcing to crowd-solve previously insurmountable healthcare issues,” it states. “In providing these low-cost solutions on an open-source, DIY platform, we aim to directly change lives around the globe.” And by sharing its story, and the lives of the people they’ve touched, Not Impossible “creates a sustainable cycle of collaboration inspiring innovation, compelling others to action and, ultimately, making the impossible, possible.”

Thus motivated, the team from Not Impossible left sunny California last year for the war-torn Nuba Mountains of southern Sudan. Their visit there would not only prove the potential of 3D printing in the medical field of prosthetics, but change lives in a region devastated by ongoing war and violence.

What inspired Ebeling and his crew to undertake this particular journey?

In April 2012, TIME magazine writer Alex Perry published an article noting the dedication of American doctor Tom Catena, who had been working over three years at the Mother of Mercy Hospital in southern Sudan when the Sudanese government in Khartoum began a full-scale assault against Nuba rebels. According to Perry, “What began as an assault on the guerrillas quickly became an all-out ethnic assault on the general population.” As a result, civilians “were likely executed en masse.”

The only capable surgeon in the region, Catena handled the resulting war-injuries and amputations among civilians who had been targeted. When urged to leave the region and seek safety, Catena refused on account of his religious faith. “The idea is to serve,” he said. “You use Christ as your guide, your mentor. This is what he did. He came to serve, not be served, and I try to follow that.”

Among the many injured civilians Catena attended was fourteen-year-old Daniel Omar, one of an estimated 50,000 amputees in the region. He had been tending his family’s cows when a government bomb exploded nearby and tore off both his arms. Daniel’s injuries eventually healed “into neat, smooth stumps,” but left him without hope. “Without hands, I can’t do anything,” he told Perry. “I can’t even fight. I’m going to make such hard work for my family in the future. If I could have died, I would have.”

Daniel’s predicament motivated Ebeling to act. “I read the article about him and had to help,” he explains in this video. “I came to Sudan with 3D printers, laptops, spools of plastic, and the goal to build Daniel an arm.”

That was the beginning of Project Daniel. Ebeling and the team came equipped not only with inexpensive plastic building materials, but also with open-source blueprints for prosthetic arms and hands published by South African company Robohand. (Richard Van As, its founder, collaborated with Ebeling on the blueprints that were used.) Thus equipped, Ebeling proceeded to develop and print a new arm for Daniel. Of course, he built the “Daniel Hand” (as it came to be known) free of charge. But remarkably, it cost only $100 to develop and six hours to print on the 3D printer. 

The Daniel Hand is not as precise in its movements as a natural hand, and its abilities are limited. But for the first time since the explosion had torn off his arms two years ago, Daniel was able to feed himself without help.

But Ebeling didn’t settle for one prosthetic arm. “It’s never about just one person,” he says.
Assisted by Dr. Catena and his own team from Not Impossible Labs, Ebeling established the world’s first 3D printing prosthetic lab and training facility at the Mother of Mercy Hospital right there in the Nuba Mountains. After fitting Daniel with his new arm, the team began teaching local doctors at the hospital to print and assemble prostheses on their own, ensuring that Project Daniel would continue indefinitely after the team returned to California.

Elliot Kotel, co-founder of Not Impossible Labs, explained to ITWebAfrica that the project’s long-term mission is “to help as many children (and adults) as possible” and to “teach the locals there, many of whom hadn’t used a laptop, and who definitely hadn’t seen or heard of a 3D printer before, to use the technology.”

Training proved easy. The locals learned the process “incredibly quickly” and rapidly assimilated the technology “for the betterment of their community.” Before the team left in November 2013, the hospital workers had already printed another two arms; since then, several more have been printed. And despite the Daniel Hand’s limited abilities, the hospital has access to all of the blueprints and resources that were used to create it. Thanks to the open source nature of Project Daniel, they will be able to adjust and improve these designs over time. 

This ability to share and improve designs and other information, as Kotel stated, is a major benefit that open source projects enjoy. And in this context, it has proven “a very real help in enabling people to regain some level of independence - feeding themselves, clothing themselves,” and freeing up their helpers’ time, so that “the benefits are magnified.”

Where does Project Daniel go from here? The team is sure of one thing: “By setting up the lab there in difficult conditions, we now know that the project can travel almost anywhere around the globe.”

That, right there, is the goal.

"We're hopeful that other children and adults in other regions of Africa, as well as other continents, will utilise the power of this new technology for similar beginnings," says Ebeling. "We believe Daniel's story will ignite a global campaign. The sharing of the prostheses' specifications, which Not Impossible will provide free and open source, will enable any person in need, anywhere on the planet, to use technology for its best purpose: restoring humanity."

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