Kansas teen uses 3-D printer to make hand for boy

01/31/2014 10:23 PM

02/05/2014 11:31 AM

Mason Wilde has always had a passion for figuring out how things work.

When he was 4 years old, he took apart his mother’s dining room table and gliding ottoman.

Last year, he built a computer, pretty much from scratch.

But it’s what the 16-year-old Louisburg High School junior made about two months ago that has him most excited these days. Not because it was so challenging, but because it’s already changing the life of a family friend’s 9-year-old son who was born without fingers on one hand.

Using a 3-D printer at the Johnson County Library, Wilde made a prosthetic hand that opens and closes and can even hold a pencil.

Just ask young Matthew how he feels about Wilde.

“He’s awesome,” the boy said, thrusting his mechanical hand high above his head.

The third-grader was born with only a thumb and a few partial digits on his right hand. He can lift stuff with it, balance a book on it, even tie his own shoes. But, Matthew said, “I was bored with that. I wanted to do more.”

Matthew’s condition, referred to as a limb difference, occurs for unknown reasons in about 5 out of every 10,000 births, affecting hands, arms, legs and toes. The condition has attracted unwanted attention to other children, Matthew’s mother, Jennifer, knows, which is why she asked that their last name and hometown not be used in this story.

Matthew is adopted. Jennifer was familiar with limb differences when she chose him. Her dad, who died before the adoption, had the same condition on his left hand.

“I remember my dad telling me once that his mother had always wanted him to have fingers,” Jennifer said. “And he was self-conscious about his hand well into adulthood. Matthew isn’t self-conscious, and I never want him to be.”

Jennifer and her three adopted boys moved to Miami County, Kan., two years ago. Children at Matthew’s elementary school were curious about the new kid’s hand without fingers.

“Every day, kids were asking him, ‘What happened to your hand, what happened to your hand,’ and I noticed it was wrecking his spirit,” Jennifer said. “Social stigma was starting to creep in on him.”

Still, Matthew showed no interest in getting a commercial prosthetic hand, his mother said.

What’s more, such a hand can cost as much as $18,000. Even with insurance, Jennifer said, “we wouldn’t be able to afford that. I’m a single mother.”

But when Matthew’s mom showed him an online picture of a “Robohand” created on a 3-D printer, he got excited. She knew the Johnson County Library had a 3-D printer that was free for anyone with a library card to use.

“It is so cool,” Matthew said, which was just what his mom was hoping for. Maybe the kids at school whose questions seemed to say something was wrong with Matthew would instead ask about his cool robot hand.

The Robohand is driven by the motion of the wrist. Move the wrist up and the hand opens, down and the fingers close.

With it Matthew can write with a pen, but not so legibly just yet. But he is working on it.

“I call it my toy tool,” Matthew said. “It — is — the future.”