COLUMBIA — Three months ago, a family in Jefferson City asked Alex Madinger and Derek Provance to build a hand for a 5-year-old.
The little boy has no fingers on his right hand and only a small portion above his wrist.
Madinger and Provance were up to the challenge. They used 3-D printing technology to devise a prosthetic hand for the boy that allows him to grab lightweight objects such as a pencil or a soda can. Made of plastic, the hand operates mechanically and is significantly cheaper than similar devices.
Prostheses that depend on advanced technology can cost as much as $14,ooo. Before locating Madinger and Provance on the Internet, the family's cheapest option was $3,000. The two researchers say they can make one for a fraction of that amount.
While working with the family, Madinger and Provance, both 23, made the decision to start the Gauntlet Initiative, a company that will produce affordable prosthetic hands. They are now hoping to secure insurance coverage for patients and recommendations from physicians.
Their prosthetic hand is made from the same plastic used in Legos, a material developed during World War II to be stable, strong and impact-resistant.
It works by attaching the hand to the forearm using a brace made from orthoplastic, a pliable substance that can be easily molded. Bending the wrist or elbow downward closes the fingers. Moving the wrist back to its original position opens the fingers.
The hand can be used by men and women of any age, Madinger and Provance say, but it could especially benefit children who can quickly outgrow a prosthesis.
Their artificial hand does have limitations, the creators say. Fingers move simultaneously and have limited individual control. The hand also cannot be used to lift heavy objects or handle excessive strain.
3-D printing broadens
3-D printing can make a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape and material from a digital model on the computer screen. The first working 3-D printing technology was developed by Chuck Hull in 1984.
The printer creates an object by stacking layers of a given material, from plastic, food, metal, even human cells. A model is initially designed with a computer program. The image is then sliced into paper-thin layers — it's like slicing a loaf of bread, Madinger said.
When the model is complete, each component is printed individually and the pieces assembled by hand.
In April, Madinger conducted a TED Talk to demonstrate the power and possibilities of 3D printing technology.
The process has become more mainstream and less expensive in recent years as technology has progressed. Today, 3-D printers can typically be purchased for as little as $1,000 for a commercial machine to as much as $1 million for a professional model.
Many printers use open-source designs, available as a blueprint online for 3-D printers. These blueprints can be downloaded from the Internet.
Madinger and Provance used an open-source design to build their first hand. But when they tested it, the boy could not rotate his wrist far enough. That's when they decided to design their own.
They were not the first to use 3-D printing for a prosthesis, however. In 2011, two men gained recognition for creating a hand for a 5-year-old in South Africa. Later, a special effects artist watched a YouTube video about the process as a guide to develop a hand for his 12-year-old son.
Provance is now engineering an image analysis program using photographs of an intact hand to calculate measurements for a prosthetic hand. All anyone will have to do is upload a picture of the functioning hand to the Gauntlet Initiative website, and a new hand can be customized.
He and Madinger say they value making something that is not just creative but useful.
"This matters," Provance said. "I'm not making the next great app. I'm enhancing somebody's daily life."
Madinger said his favorite part of the process is bringing something into the world that didn't exist.
"It' the best kind of headache to create something from nothing," he said.
Madinger graduated from MU with a degree in engineering, and Provance is a senior at MU studying computer science.
They say they were inventing things even as kids. At 12, Madinger spent time designing spy gear, ranging from hovercrafts to tracking devices. He still has the drawings.
At the same age, Provance became interested in computer programming after he began designing levels in the video game Half Life.
To promote their new business, the entrepreneurs have taken their idea to several startup competitions.
In September, Madinger won second place at the Columbia Startup Weekend, a workshop and competition that gives local entrepreneurs the chance to showcase their projects. During Startup Weekend, contestants have 54 hours to pitch their ideas, create a team, design a product and present it.
"It was a roller-coaster of excitement to crunch time to no sleep and more crunch time," Madinger said.
At the end of the competition, the Gauntlet Initiative won $1,250, which helps cover the cost of the plastic they need for the printer.
Provance said starting a company from scratch is both exciting and uncertain because it could go 100 different directions.
"We're taking our future into our own hands," Madinger said.
Right now, they are focusing on finishing the hand prototype and taking it to Jefferson City for the boy to test.
"If this does as we hope, it could change the lives of so many people," Provance said.