MakerLab Helps Design 3D Print Product To Help Overcome Disability

Ultimaker brand 3D printer at MakerLab at Gies College of Business

For children or elderly individuals who lack the hand function needed to complete simple, everyday tasks, life can be very hard. Now the Illinois MakerLab at Gies College of Business is helping change their lives. The MakerLab has partnered with Thera-Solutions, LLC to develop and build the functionalhand, a universal cuff that allows the user to hold tools of many shapes and sizes in both the vertical and horizontal orientation.

“Thera-Solutions contacted us out of the blue and asked if we’d help,” said Vishal Sachdev, director of the Illinois MakerLab. “We knew immediately this was an impactful project we could work on, so we signed up!”

The MakerLab was a perfect fit for Thera-Solutions, who needed the ability to make design changes inexpensively. Thera-Solutions’ co-founders Celine Skertich and Linda Merry recognized that the lab shared their same values and commitment. They initially 3D printed the functionalhand in their community library. Once a design was ready to be tested for bulk production, they needed a way to make a high-quality product consistently, while still reserving the ability to make changes.

Sachdev and a group of student workers helped develop the final proof of concept for the functionalhand, which consists of a plastic handle and an adjustable cord that fits around items such as markers, toothbrushes, cups, or kitchen utensils. MakerLab staff tried multiple variations before they settled on the best version that was the right weight and could withstand normal wear and tear that comes with being handled by children. After about two months of back-and-forth in design and testing, the first batch of 150 functionalhands was printed and shipped.

“Enabling a child to be able to color, paint, draw, or access technology for the first time is a unique opportunity to change lives,” said Linda Merry, an occupational therapist and co-founder of Thera-Solutions, LLC. “Supporting a growing aging population with grasp difficulties also allows them to remain active throughout the duration of their lives. There are so many individuals who need our help.”

“It’s been really great to work on a project which can positively impact someone’s quality of life,” said Sachdev. “This is really beneficial for the lab, too. We are a self-sustaining lab, and these bulk projects help us pay for all the other great experiences we provide for paid and volunteer students from all across campus.”

One of those students is Will Jones, a senior majoring in systems engineering at Illinois, who has been working with the MakerLab for three years. He brought his engineering experience to the functionalhand project, helping troubleshoot when the prototype was still too fragile. Each product took about three hours to print, meaning they spent more than 450 hours printing the 150 functionalhands and many more hours in failures and test units. Jones has helped see this project through from start to finish – and even though he’s not formally studying business, it’s been a valuable experience to help build, sell, and ship this life-changing product.

“I’ve learned that business is so much more than just developing a product and selling it,” said Jones. “It’s about communicating with your client, solving problems as they arrive, and taking and implementing client feedback. Being able to see the business aspect of the MakerLab has been an incredible experience for me.”

And that’s what the MakerLab is all about. The world’s first 3D printing lab inside a business school provides transformational experiences for students all across the University of Illinois campus. At Gies, students don’t have to check their passions and causes at the door. Through the MakerLab, they can design and 3D print products that can solve some of society’s most pressing problems.

“It’s all about finding those passionate students and providing them the opportunity and platform to pursue their passions,” said Sachdev. “We have incredible students at Gies and all across campus. The MakerLab is a space where students can explore what’s important to them and discover sustainable solutions that can make the world a better place.”

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