Through 3-D printing, Durham Tech students create prosthetic hands for children

Seth Close demonstrates how the 3-D printed index finger connects to the palm of a prosthetic hand used by children in The Helping Hand Project.

Hannah Brown carefully clacked away at her keyboard on an April afternoon as she notched the outline of a knuckle.

A few moments later, Brown, a respiratory therapy student at Durham Tech, and Seth Close, a classmate and engineering student, watched the calculations morph the plastic filament into an index finger.

Brown, 20, and Close, 21, are among more than a half-dozen students participating in The Helping Hand Project’s Durham Tech chapter. The student-led initiative creates prosthetic hands for the Chapel Hill non-profit organization that serves children born with a rare condition that causes issues with limb development.

For children affected by the condition, temporary hands are often too pricey and children rapidly outgrow the prosthetics. But through The Helping Hand partnership, Durham Tech students are able to provide assistance while learning about the intricacies of 3-D-printing.

The Durham Tech chapter recently completed its first hand. The process took two weeks to print and assemble.

Brown said the on-campus project was a defining moment in her college experience.

“Before I knew this was a thing, I grew up wanting to build prosthetic hands for people with disabilities so this solidified that this was where I needed to be,” Brown said. “As soon as Jeff (Powell) started talking about it, I knew I wanted to be involved. I called my mom when I found out about it and she started crying, saying, ‘This is really what you’re supposed to do with your life.’ ”

Powell, the founder of The Helping Hand Project, came to Durham Tech in January to recruit students for help with the project.

Brown and Close were among the first to sign up. The chapter now has 10 students and is advised by Steve Leadon, a science coordinator and biology instructor at Durham Tech.

“You’re providing something for somebody who has a limb difference,” Leadon said. “That’s really the number one priority and that’s what I’ve told the students that they need to keep focused on. You’re doing this for the kids.”

The chapter received a $2,000 grant from the Durham Tech Foundation last fall to purchase its own 3-D printer. The group meets weekly during the fall and spring semesters to train on the printer, practice using the software, and test prototypes.

“From a practical perspective, it teaches the students a skill,” Leadon said. “And that skill could be both in terms of using the 3-D printer, but also the software, it teaches them something about joints, a little anatomy, and the function of how things work.”

Hannah Brown shows off a 3-D printed thumb on an April afternoon, the first complete piece created by The Helping Hand Project Durham Tech Chapter.

Brown, a co-president of the chapter, said diversity is a unique strength of the group.

“The cool thing about the Durham Tech chapter is that we have students from all walks of life, from respiratory therapy to engineering to occupational therapy,” Brown said. “We have different students with different majors working on it, which gives us all new perspectives.”

Close, the engineering student, has a 3-D printer at home, and serves as a de facto lead printer specialist. He said his involvement in the project could change his career trajectory.

“I might go into biomedical engineering and work with more advanced prosthetics that work with motors and nerve systems that attach to the base of these hands,” Close said. “It sounds so interesting.”

Several students remarked about the affordability of the 3-D printed limbs, during a brief demonstration in April.

“The coolest thing is that we can make a hand for $30,” Brown said. “It cost so little.”

The recently completed hand will be given to The Helping Hand Project as a demo to show the chapter’s ability to create a hand and then the chapter will be contacted when the next need arises. The Helping Hand Project provides the prostheses to children free of charge. The Durham Tech students are spending the summer fundraising to purchase more materials to be ready to print out a hand should they be assigned a child in need this fall.

“This is a nice challenge and I really enjoy it,” Close said. “It feels really awesome to know that someone is going to be using this.”

In addition to creating their first hand, the chapter also has taken on a side project to help a 17-year-old teenager who has struggled with braiding her hair. Brown said she met the teen, named Kait, during a Spring Family Get Together, which was put on by The Helping Hand Project earlier this spring.

“She’s 17, she’s had this her whole life, there’s so much she can do. It’s more of a question of what do you want help with at the point,” Brown said. “The only thing she has trouble with is braiding her hair. All the guys that were listening said, ‘That’s really difficult. We’re not sure how to fix that,’ and I was like, ‘I’m going to do it!’ ”

Since then, the chapter has been experimenting with methods of opening and closing a hair clip by wrist movement.

The Helping Hand Project is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Chapel Hill that is on a mission to use forward thinking and innovative technologies to provide useful prosthetic devices to those that are financially and medically in need at no cost to the patient or their family.

For more information about Durham Technical Community College, visit or call 919-536-7200.

Hannah Brown peers through the window of the 3-D printer while it creates an index finger out of plastic filament.