Michigan Tech 3D Printing To Help Kids In Nicaragua

HOUGHTON — With all the technology we have today, there are so many possibilities. The whole world can collaborate and create open-sourced information to help develop thousands of scientific uses for new technologies like 3D printing.

Enabling the Future is a Los Gatos, Calif.-based nonprofit that is doing just that. It is a global network of volunteers using their 3D printers, design skills and personal time to give the world a “helping hand” with free 3D-printed prosthetic hands for those in need. Now, they’re getting help from Michigan Technological University.

Recycling Waste Plastic

Eric Friesen, a native of British Columbia, Canada who works with Enabling the Future, wants to bring Michigan Tech’s open-source RepRap 3D printing and recyclebot technology to Nicaragua. The recyclebot is a machine that converts recyclable waste plastic to 3D printer filament.

Friesen found Enabling the Future by browsing the internet. When he read about the network’s efforts, he was hooked. For the past few months, he has been sending emails and posting on Facebook to try to reach others who could help him get a 3D printer into Nicaragua, where he now resides — and noticed children there who didn’t have access to prosthetics. His search finally led to Joshua Pearce, an associate professor in Michigan Tech’s Departments of Material Science and Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“We want a scalable model of distributed manufacturing for Nicaragua that includes free computer-aided design files of all the equipment, accessible supplies and will require limited training,” said Pearce, whose research has focused on 3D printing and open-source hardware.

Many of the materials easily accessible online in the United States are extremely difficult for Nicaraguans to obtain. Therefore, Pearce decided to teach Friesen how to bypass customs restrictions on imports of filament and 3D printers by bringing in a single 3D printer that can self-replicate using available alternative filaments or local
waste materials fed into the recyclebot.

3-D Printer Headed for Nicaragua

Last week they successfully completed modifications to the base Michigan Tech 3D printer design that allows the machine to print with weed wacker line and other materials accessible in Nicaragua. Friesen and Jill Poliskey, an undergraduate research fellow, spent two days building and testing a Michigan Tech RepRap 3D printer. Poliskey’s research fellowship is supported by the Michigan Tech-Portage Health Foundation partnership, through the Pavlis Honors College.

Friesen and the printer made it back to Nicaragua with the help of some kind U.P. TSA agents. Its primary purpose is now creating open source medical hardware like “helping hands”, but he is also using the printer to build other 3D printers to house at local universities there. “This technology can be used to help adults who need prosthetics and need to work for a living,” Friesen said. “It can be life-changing around the world.”

A 3D printed "helping hand" prosthetic
A 3D printed “helping hand” prosthetic

Pearce adds, “Hopefully, one of these “helping hand” recipients will see the technology they are benefiting from and one day be interested in creating and sharing open designs for someone else.”

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