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Making Miracles, One Arm At a Time

Featured Photo from Making Miracles, One Arm At a Time

Oviedo engineering student proves that technology and the human spirit know no “limbits”.

It all started with a plastic hand and a 3-D printer. Two years later, 15 children have been granted a new beginning and a chance to embrace their young lives courtesy of a group of compassionate local students who are performing miracles right in our own backyard.

From a windowless lab in the Engineering II building at the University of Central Florida, an all-volunteer team of 15 to 20 undergraduate and graduate students lend their collective talents to Limbitless Solutions, a nonprofit organization founded on campus to create advanced prosthetic hands and arms for amputee children and those living without a limb. For the first time in their lives, these kids are able to do things we all take for granted. Like opening a water bottle. Or hugging their mom. Even strumming a guitar.

Thanks to the magic of 3-D printing, the team headed by Albert Manero, a Ph.D. candidate in aerospace and mechanical engineering is creating these bionic arms for a mere $500 compared to prosthetic limbs that can run up to $40,000. Not only are traditional prosthetics cost-prohibitive, but most health insurance policies don’t cover them for young patients because kids typically outgrow a custom-fitted prosthetic in two years or less. The Limbitless Solutions team found this situation unacceptable, and with the support of grassroots donations, they ensure that no family has to pay a dime for their bionic arms, which can be replaced as often as necessary.

Albert says the catalyst for forming Limbitless Solutions was the discovery of Flexy Hand, a 3-D computer-aided design file of a human hand that could be reproduced with existing equipment on campus. However, Albert soon learned a hand was not enough.

“When we received a call from a local family who had heard about our work [with Flexy Hand], and they requested an arm for their son, we worked hard to create a full arm,” says Albert.

The trick was programming a 3-D printed forearm and upper arm that would attach to the Flexy Hand. Albert says success was evident when the 11-year-old recipient, Alex Pring from Lake County, used the team’s white, 3-D-printed creation to pick up a rubber ball and hug his mom for the first time. That success inspired the Limbitless Solutions team to not only begin production on more bionic arms, but to have graphic designers customize each arm for the child who will use it. Today, all recipients are asked before production about their favorite characters, colors, and what they love.

“The arms have gone from plain white plastic, morphing into something beautiful,” says Albert.

According to Sabrina Torres of Oviedo, a sophomore in mechanical engineering and a member of the team, Limbitless Solutions engineers first mold the arm with 3-D modeling. An ivory piece of ABS plastic is 3-D printed, similar to LEGO material, which is hard, yet light. It is then sanded and hand-painted by artists. Mechanical engineers assemble the hand and arm, while electrical engineers create circuit boards and programming to make it move.

“It works by the child flexing muscles,” Sabrina says. “That flex, coupled with EMG pads placed under the bionic arm, cause the hand to open and close. And it charges just like a cell phone. It gets plugged in at night.”

Sabrina says she heard about Limbitless Solutions when she arrived at UCF and immediately jumped on board. Like many of the volunteers, it’s in her nature to help kids. In 2011, Oviedo-Winter Springs Life highlighted Sabrina for her efforts to collect school supplies for underprivileged classmates.

Reaching Out

As Limbitless Solutions began delivering its colorful and incredible arms to children, word spread, and celebrities joined the cause. When it was time to present Alex, an Iron Man fan, with his new custom arm, actor Robert Downey, Jr., who portrays Iron Man in the movie series, did the honors himself. Alex’s and Robert’s Iron Man arms virtually matched, and they attached them in unison to an avalanche of cheers and tears.

Soccer legend and UCF alumna Michelle Akers heard that Lia, a soccer fan from Atlanta, would be a recipient of a bionic arm from Limbitless Solutions, so Michelle invited Lia and her family to her ranch, where Lia received her arm. Annika, a 10-year-old girl from California, received her arm at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium while visiting Winter, the only dolphin with a prosthetic tail. Twelve-year-old Wyatt from Vero Beach loves the Blue Man Group, so not only did the colorful trio present Wyatt with his new blue arm, he was asked to be part of the group’s show that day.

And in its largest undertaking to date, Limbitless Solutions promised 12 bionic arms to children in 11 states last Christmas, creating once-in-a-lifetime moments in living rooms across America on December 25.

“The families sent pictures and videos of Christmas morning,” says Sabrina. “It was very moving.”

Albert notes the team is also making improvements to the bionics, such as fashioning lighter arms, enhancing electronics, and making special adaptations. For Annika, as an example, Limbitless Solutions devised a way for her to hold a pick so she could play the guitar.

“When we first started, we didn’t know how much these arms would impact a child,” Albert says. “Now we do.”

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