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USM students build low-cost prosthetic arm prototypes

Engineering students help Portland Rotary club provide prosthetic arms to amputees in the Dominican Republic

PORTLAND, Maine — Students at the University of Southern Maine (USM) are building prosthetic arms that could help amputees in the Dominican Republic.   

Last fall, the Portland Rotary Club reached out to USM's Maker Innovation Studio (MIST), which is part of the Michael E. Dubyak Center for Digital Science and Innovation, located on the Portland campus.

The rotary club was looking for help designing and building a fully functional prosthetic arm they would donate to people in poorer countries like the Dominican Republic and India. 

"I thought it would be a great project for the junior design class," Asheesh Lanba, an Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at USM, said. "[The rotary] had some concern with their current design and they also wanted to move from just a mechanical arm to something that electrical actuation."

Lanba split up the class into teams and the student's assignment was to improve the rotary's designs and make a working prototype using a 3-D printer.

Credit: NCM

There were challenges, though, like cost. 

"The goal was to make a prosthetic arm which is under $120," Lanba said. 

The students also had to think about how the arms would function in a hot and humid climate.

Lanba said, "The materials that work over here are not going to work in the Dominican Republic."

And then there was Covid.

"We all scrambled because we were on lockdown, students couldn't come to campus anymore," Lanba said. 

Without access to the lab, the students were only going to be graded on their designs but some students had other ideas.

Electrical engineering student Adam Robert bought an inexpensive 3-D printer to use at home. And along with fellow student Mackenzie Libby, they used their own resources to build an improved prosthetic arm prototype (they built their first one in class). The second prototype is waterproof and mimics the way hands and fingers look and move.

Credit: NCM

The designs the class came up with along with the working prototypes are being used by the Portland Rotary Club.

"It couldn't be possible without the students. They're the real stars," Lanba said. 

Adam Robert said, "It's cool to see a project that you have done be put to real-world use and not sitting at school in a cabinet. It's being used and people will be taking it and improving on it."

"It's really the kind of success we strive for. Just enriching life, I think is what draws anybody to engineering for the most part," Libby said.

This isn't the first time USM's engineering department have been called for help. 

Students have also worked with doctors in Maine to come up with medical device prototypes.






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