Research scientist Jon Schull didn’t set out to lead a global network of volunteers working together to design, build, and give away 3D-printed prosthetics to people who need them, including children and veterans.
But then Schull, a faculty member at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Media, Arts, Games, and Interactive Creativity (MAGIC), watched a YouTube video describing how a South African woodworker and a special-effects artist from Washington worked together remotely via Skype and email to inexpensively create a 3D-printed prosthetic hand for a 5-year-old boy — and then made the specifications available for free. Schull, an expert in Internet collaboration, designed an interactive custom Google Map to allow someone who needed a prosthetic to find someone who was interested in building one, and left a link to the map in the video’s comments field.
He wasn’t thinking any further ahead than that, Schull said, “but people kept getting in touch with me.” Using additional online tools such as Google+, Facebook, and Skype, Schull created online platforms where a global community of designers, engineers, artists, prosthetists, and others began to gather to design and build devices, and match potential prosthetic makers with users. Last year, Schull founded a nonprofit organization, e-NABLE, which now has more than 3,000 global members in its volunteer network.
And on Sept. 28, the online community met one another in person at e-NABLE’s first-ever conference, Prosthetists Meet Printers: Mainstreaming Open Source 3D Printed Prosthetics for Underserved Populations, held at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. In addition to members of the e-NABLE network, conference attendees included medical professionals, policy makers (prosthetics are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), academics, and individuals who need prosthetics.
The conference not only brought together a diverse community, Schull said, it created a remarkable reverse flow of information. e-NABLE members, who include end users and nonprofessionals, shared what they’ve learned through crowdsourcing with health-care professionals, such as prosthetists, Johns Hopkins faculty members, and prosthetic manufacturers — two of which were conference sponsors.
In addition to keynotes and panel presentations, the conference included interactive workshops — one for users and another for health-care professionals — where participants fabricated prosthetics with 3D printers. At the end of the day, conference attendees had built prosthetics for 25 children to take home. The cost to fabricate the basic 3D-printed prosthetics is $50 to $200, compared to thousands of dollars for high-end, traditionally manufactured prosthetics.
The e-NABLE volunteers organized the conference in about six weeks, using online tools including Eventbrite for registration and ticketing, and Sched for the conference agenda. “Not one of us had ever done this before,” Schull said, “and it was all-consuming.” Also well worth the effort: “It was a huge success, and the most effective thing that our organization could possibly have done.”
Many of the children and families at the conference had never met others with similar conditions, nor had many of the e-NABLE volunteers met each other or the recipients of prosthetics. “I kept hearing from everyone, ‘This is amazing,’” Schull said. The conference “was a huge legitimization of all that we have been doing.”
And to Schull’s surprise, the conference also ended up making a profit. “We are in the oddball position,” he said, “of having accidentally discovered a viable business model.” A second e-NABLE conference is planned later this year in New York City, and the organization is thinking about how it can replicate similar events with medical centers all over the world. Meanwhile, e-NABLE volunteers continue to collaborate online and network at face-to-face events. “It’s like fireworks,” Schull said. “One explosion triggers several others.”