Mechanical Engineers Invent “The Falcon Hand” for Refugee Amputees

By Jeffrey Overstreet | Photos By Garland Cary
The Falcon Hand

Left to right: Senior Sean Russell, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Adam Arabian, and Senior Perris Anawati work on the the “The Falcon Hand” in SPU’s 3-D printing lab.

Ask SPU sophomore Barrett Estep to sum up his childhood in one word, and he’ll say, “Legos.” Senior Sean Russell gives a similar answer: “Whenever I saw a mechanical device, I wanted to take it apart and figure out why it worked.”

Now, in the SPU Mechanical Engineering program, both men get to 3-D print building blocks of their own design and assemble them into contraptions that will meet needs around the globe.

Their current project began in Autumn 2014, when SPU Assistant Professor of Engineering Adam Arabian struck up a conversation online with David Levin of Refugee Open Ware, an organization developing innovative solutions for refugees in Amman, Jordan. Levin was investigating cutting-edge prosthetics to help some of the 200,000 amputees among refugees from the Syrian war — specifically, amputees living in Syria’s Za’atari refugee camp.

In Za’atari, 25 percent of amputees are upper-limb amputees, so a practical prosthetic hand could benefit many people. Arabian set a group of his engineering students to the task of designing and producing, with the engineering lab’s new 3-D printers, prosthetic hands that would meet this need.

“We’ve seen a lot of passion for prosthetics in the maker community,” he says, referring to a growing global network of people who share ideas and designs for 3-D-printed objects. “We saw an opportunity to apply engineering principles to make better solutions.”

Falcon Hand

Sean Russell, Barrett Estep, and Perris Anawati discuss design changes to the moveable thumb. “Our hands,”  says Estep, “are the result of a thousand little ‘aha’ moments.”

Arabian and his team of students — Estep , Russell, and seniors Perris Anawati and Nick Rogers — started with an open-source hand design from a group called e-NABLE, but found it too bulky. “The Falcon Hand” is designed to suit the needs of adults in Za’atari: It’s smaller, sculpted to look like a real hand, and it has a repositionable thumb that enables wearers to use a variety of grasp patterns.

And what happens if it breaks? “It’s like working with Legos,” says Estep. “If you break it, you can fix it yourself” — even one-handed.

The team is still testing their design, which is several steps away from being used by amputees. Their teamwork is a constant process of 3-D-printing trial and error. “This,” says Arabian, holding up a box full of loose plastic pieces, “is ‘The Boneyard.’ These are all of the ideas that didn’t work.”

Innovations are in the works. Russell is fashioning a slider switch that allows the user to secure a grip. As they share their prototypes online (at a site called Thingiverse, which Estep calls “YouTube for 3-D printers”), their goal is that people who need these hands will be able to produce them anywhere that a 3-D printer is available.

Printing new prosthetics right in the lab is exciting. But even more exciting is the prospect of changing lives on the other side of the world.

“The point of our project has never been for us to achieve the Next Big Design,” says Arabian. “The point has been to say, ‘We’ve got great ideas. Let’s try them. If people love our design, they can take it. They can even steal it. As long as we solve the problem.’”