Get a GRiP

Original article published in Our Town
Story and photography by Summer Jarro

Four-year-old Christian Vann calls his left hand his “lucky fin.”

He was born with the condition Symbrachydactyly, which in Latin loosely means short, stubby fingers. On his left hand, he has a thumb and most of his pinky finger while his three middle fingers are mostly stubby, said Matt Vann, Christian’s father.

Even though Christian was born this way, it doesn’t bother him or slow him down. He still can climb the monkey bars at school and play sports like any other preschooler.

“[He] doesn’t have any limitations,” Vann said. “There’s nothing that he wants to do that he can’t do.”

Christian is one of over 30 people from across the country the Generational Relief in Prosthetics (GRiP) organization has helped by making him a hand prosthetic.

GRiP is an organization at the University of Florida that prints 3D prosthetics and other 3D assistive devices for chil- dren, teens and adults with upper limb differences at printing labs on campus. It was founded in 2015 by Jessica Bergau, a UF zoology major at the time, after she read a BuzzFeed article about 3D printing. About 80 to 100 people from all majors are a part of the organization and make assistive devices for free for those in need of them, said Myles Marcus, president of GRiP.

“The cool thing about 3D printing is that you can basically get a prototype that fits reasonably well, and if it doesn’t fit perfectly, you can thermoform it and get it to fit pretty much OK much quicker than the traditional materials,” said Stephen Arce, faculty advisor for GRiP.

In the fall, Vann contacted GRiP to make a device for Christian because he thought it would be something he might want to try.

GRiP made him a customized orange and blue hand, because Christian loves the Florida Gators, using the printing technology, Vann said.

Christian was mesmerized, like a kid in a candy store, while watching the process of making his hand. He was so excited once he received it, he broke it in half the first week by taking it to school so much.

“I’ve told so many people this. It’s …,” Vann said, while getting choked up and teary-eyed when asked his opinion of GRiP. “It’s impressive. They’re all students, they’re all volunteers and they really genuinely care for all the people they help.”

Since GRiP’s creation, members of the organization have made all types of hands and other assistive devices for people that their labs have multiple boxes filled to the brim with them.

The process of making a hand starts with teens, adults or parents of children filling out a form for the device they want to have made. Members of GRiP are split into groups and work on certain devices together with a captain leading the process. They gather measurements by taking pictures of the person’s hand with a ruler in the background.

“We’re able to take that picture and put it in a software called Blender and through that software we’re able to get all of the dimensions of the kids’ hands without actually specifically measuring it,” Marcus said.

A 3D model of the hand is laid over the hand taken in the picture to size the prosthetic and make sure it will fit accordingly. Hand prosthetics are made depending on the upper arm difference of the person. After, the information for each part of the hand is sent to one of the 3D printers in the lab and printed, Marcus said.

Polyactic Acid (PLA) filaments are used to print the devices. There are multiple spools of filament with colors such as blue, red and green hanging on the walls of the lab to use for printing. Recipients can choose what color they want to customize their hand or other assistive device. One person had a white hand prosthetic made with a gator painted on it.

Parts of a smaller hand device could take a day to print while larger hands take longer to complete, Arce said.

Once each part of the device is finished printing, the hand is assembled using screws, rubber bands, elastic strings, and sometimes leather for the palm to make them more comfortable.

There are several ways GRiP assembles the hands, depending on the prosthetic made, to allow the recipients to move it. One way is using elastic strings and attaching it to the top of the fingertips down through the palm of the hand and then to the wrist.

When recipients bend the hand, the strings pull the fingers in closing the hand, and when pressure isn’t applied anymore, the hand will go back to its regular shape.

Another method is using rubber orthodontics bands on the joints of the fingers, which allow the hand to move in the same motion as the elastic strings do. Christian’s hand was assembled with the rubber bands, Marcus said.

“It’s not as difficult as you might think,” he said, when talking about the process.

Members of GRiP create the hand prosthetics by researching and getting 3D models online and through the organization Enabling The Future.

“The majority of the stuff we’re printing we aren’t necessarily designing ourselves, but we’re getting to that stage where we’re starting to design our own stuff,” Marcus said.

Hand prosthetics aren’t the only thing GriP has made. “The cooler part about the group is that you can kind of use your creativity to come up with new solutions for different stuff,” Arce said.

The organization has made other devices to help with everyday activities or assist in some of the hobbies people with upper limb differences enjoy doing or want made such as a self-playing guitar.

For the self-playing guitar, GriP uses screws, solenoids (a type of electromagnet), and 3D-printed plastic parts, which are then attached to a guitar for people who can’t press down on the chords. The device is electronically controlled by wires to a foot pedal that kids can press down on. Depending on what foot pedal is being pressed, it will activate the switch on the fingerboard to press down the certain chord they want to play, Marcus said.

Other assistive devices that have been made are a drumstick holder, fishing rod device, ping pong paddle holder, guitar pick holder, game controller, car toy controller and more. They measure, scale and print the same way when making a hand prosthetic for the assistive devices, but if it’s a new project, they start from scratch designing it themselves or researching for methods online.

Members of GriP have designed many of the new assistive devices themselves such as the fishing rod and self-playing guitar. Marcus came up with the drumstick holder idea. As for the guitar pick holder, GriP got the design from Brazilian Marcelo Botelho, who created it, Marcus said.

Marcus and other members of GriP enjoy being a part of this organization because they get to see the difference they are making by helping others.

About a year ago, GriP made a guitar pick device for a girl named Bella from Arizona to use. A few months later, GriP received an email from her with a video showing her using the device at a guitar recital.

“It’s just a very good feeling that the work that we’re doing is actually affecting people’s lives,” Marcus said.