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Humans of Manufacturing

The Power of Design

Professor uses 3D Printing to Help Children, Soldiers.

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Shea, Bella, Haley, Evan—these are just a few of the children that Frankie Flood has fitted with prosthetic hands over the years. An associate art professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, (NC), Flood’s profession is teaching students the intricacies of digital manufacturing and metalsmithing. His passion is helping others, whether it’s making superheroes out of disabled kids or soldiers who’ve been hurt while serving our country.

Flood grew up in a farming community, so was surrounded by machinery and equipment during his early years, and on weekends helped his father tinker on various projects. But it wasn’t until his college years that he became heavily involved in manufacturing. His summer months were spent working at a printing company, then later at a tool and die shop. He became interested in jewelry making along the way, melding his passion for making beautiful yet functional objects with his nascent fabrication skills.

Flood put those skills to work while teaching at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. He built his own 3D printer, and through collaboration with the then fledgling volunteer group e-NABLE, helped develop prosthetic hands for children who’d been born with missing fingers or had suffered amputations. And rather than profit by his work, he and the others at e-NABLE made their designs open source, then helped patients and their families take advantage of the new technology.

“Our first e-NABLE sponsored hand was called the Raptor,” said Flood. “We had a number of workshops where we’d size the child's hand and provide the parents with a matching parts kit and they’d assemble it together with their kid, step by step. It was almost like going to a shoe store, so for maybe twenty to fifty dollars, they’d have a working assistive device. It was something that anyone could do.”

“It removes the stigma associated with wearing a prosthesis, and helps them realize their dreams. That’s the power of design.”
Frankie Flood

The group helped hundreds of children over the course of these “handathons” and word of their activities spread. Flood soon received an email from Gerald Ortiz of Melody America, a non-profit group helping wounded veterans through music. The two exchanged ideas about printing musical instruments, but they ended up working on a different type of project.

“At one point, he asked if it would be possible to make leg coverings for prosthetic legs, to restore their anatomical shape,” said Flood. “I thought it would be a great project for a few of the seniors in the university’s digital fabrication program, and they thought so too.”

After some initial prototyping work, the students spoke with Sergeant Eric Rodriguez, a Marine Corps veteran who’d lost his left leg in Afghanistan. They learned his interests, his favorite colors, and each designed a custom leg covering for the wounded warrior. The team has since gone on to form a group called Next Step, and after entering their design in and winning the Infymakers challenge, received funding to continue their work.

Flood says 3D printing has allowed him to change what would otherwise be seen as a disability into a positive attribute. “Even the kids who weren’t disabled would look at the assistive device as if it was a superhero hand. Pretty soon classmates were asking for a 3D printed hand too. And that was the moment when we realized, ‘Wow! This has the potential to change people’s mindsets about disabilities.’ It removes the stigma associated with wearing a prosthesis, and helps them realize their dreams. That’s the power of design.”