The ability to ride a bicycle or use one’s dominant hand is something many people may not think twice about.
But for Edmund Raine, it’s not so simple.
Despite being raised to know he is whole, Redmond resident Amy LaFranca said she wanted her son to have a tool that would enable him to do such activities, including writing with his left hand.
“I’m pretty sure he’s left-handed dominant like his parents,” she said.
That tool is a prosthetic arm.
To provide Edmund with this tool, LaFranca, an executive business administrator at Microsoft Corp., emailed a project manager at the Microsoft Garage, the Redmond company’s outlet for experimental projects. She requested help and permission to print out a 3-D upper-limb-assistive device for her son, who is a second-grader at Snoqualmie Elementary School.
LaFranca said the manger she contacted, Bruno Lewin, granted her permission and then emailed the Garage community asking for volunteers to assist with the project.
The first two Microsoft employees to respond were Matt Fleming, a principal software developer for Xbox, and Anthony Seo, a software engineer for the Universal Store for Windows.
Fleming said he first got interested in 3-D printing after seeing it at the Portland Mini Maker Faire.
“Since getting a printer three-plus years ago I have printed many toys and am currently working on a 3-D printed full-size BB-8 from ‘Star Wars,’” he said.
Seo said his interest in 3-D printing came from spending time in the Garage. Prior to creating the prosthesis for Edmund, Seo mostly created Internet-controlled devices such as an Internet-controlled robot car.
After receiving LaFranca’s email through the Garage distribution list, Fleming and Seo teamed up to try something new.
“While working with Anthony, I was able to learn about all the different designs out there for prosthetic hands,” Fleming said, adding that he has learned so much more about 3-D printing.
Seo created prototypes to fine tune the required skills needed to deliver a quality prosthetic and researched online for different parts and material for the prosthesis. He then generated 3-D print files based on measurements LaFranca sent them.
Seo printed the hand, while Fleming printed the forearm and bicep cuff. The two assembled the presthesis in the Garage.
LaFranca said the cost of Edmund’s prosthetic arm was about $25.
“I can’t imagine what it would cost to create something like this through other channels,” she said. “I would think it would be rather cost prohibitive.”
She added that Fleming and Seo were kind enough to provide the materials in 3-D printing the prototype as well as other versions of the arm. Going forward, LaFranca said she will be buying the filament used for the future printing and donating it to Fleming and Seo.
Edmund had never used a prosthetic arm prior to receiving this one. But he took to the device quickly. LaFranca said within 30 seconds, he was picking up an empty whiteboard eraser box and flipping it like a bottle cap and two minutes after that he was picking up a plastic bag.
Edmund said he is “super excited” about his new arm.
“I’ve never used a robot hand before,” he said.
And with this “robot hand” Edmund said he can now “play with two toys at the same time instead of just one.”
LaFranca said the prosthesis isn’t for everyday use so it is not life changing from that perspective. However, it is life changing in that it gives her son options — the option to have a tool that helps him ride a bicycle or write with his left hand if he wants to.
“That is where it’s life changing,” she said. “He now has a choice.”
For Fleming it has been a great feeling to be able to help LaFranca and her son. He said it was great to be able to find a design and build something that really affects someone’s life. Fleming said when they first gave Edmund the arm, it was great to see how quickly he figured it out and was picking things up.
“It was funny to even hear his sister say that she wanted (a prosthetic arm) after seeing all the things her brother could do,” Fleming said.
Seo said he felt empowered to be able to help because he didn’t know if he could actually deliver when they started the project. He said seeing Edmund use the arm for the first time put a big smile on his face.
“Amy really started all of this,” Seo said. “There is a good chance that if I didn’t see that email, another engineer might have helped instead. However, none of this would have happened without Amy’s initiative.”
He added that this project has brought a lot of attention to the need for 3-D printed prosthesis and it has rippled into greater action within Microsoft and the local community.
Fleming said they are starting a chapter of Enabling the Future at the Microsoft Garage so they can help more people both in the area and around the world.
Enabling the Future is an organization that helps people worldwide by connecting them with those who can build prosthetic limbs like the one Edmund received.
“I am looking forward to working with all the other people inside of Microsoft who might not have a 3-D printer, but who have expertise and life experience they can bring to help more people in this effort,” Fleming said. “And it all started with a simple email and taking a chance.”