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How One Prosthetic Arm Is Changing Many LivesLegosArm

Right about lunchtime, 6-year-old Alex Pring releases the Velcro straps holding his prosthetic arm in place and stores the device in his backpack. The arm has done its job for the day, helping the first-grader hold papers in place so he can complete his writing and math assignments. He’s also used it to grab books off the classroom shelves and to draw his teacher’s attention when she asks for volunteers to run a message to the office.

By noon, Alex’s shoulder muscles are tired from supporting his new artificial limb, which was created with 3-D printed plastic parts and circuit boards purchased from Inc., among other items. Learning not to overwork his body as it becomes accustomed to the prosthetic is just one of the many adjustments Alex has made since a team of UCF students engineered the mechanical wonder for him this summer.

“It’s been quite a ride,” says his mother, Alyson Pring. “It’s amazing how he’s adjusting to everything. And his confidence … that’s where it really shows.”

Alex was born missing most of his right arm. His family wanted to buy a prosthetic, but at $40,000, it wasn’t feasible. So Alyson searched online for help and discovered e-NABLE, an international organization that connects families with inventors and 3-D printer enthusiasts creating solutions for children with special needs. That’s how she met Albert Manero, an e-NABLE volunteer who would change their lives forever.

Inspired by Alyson’s desire to help her son, Manero, a Ph.D. student and Fulbright scholar currently studying at the German Aerospace Center, gathered 14 friends with skills ranging from engineering to nursing and pooled their expertise for the volunteer project. During a stressful eight-week sprint, they worked in their spare time and often late into the night to design and construct Alex’s arm using high-tech tools and a lot of trial and error at the UCF Machine Lab.

When Alex received his arm at a July 25 news conference, he became a media sensation. He’s appeared on NBC and ABC evening news shows, and strangers have commented on his “cool robo-arm.” Before the prosthetic, he dreaded people asking him, “What’s wrong with your arm?” Today, he happily shakes hands with curious people when they approach. And Alex is enjoying the physical benefits too, like riding his bicycle with better balance and agility.

The transition is a work in progress for all involved. While Alex trains his muscles to control the arm and builds enough endurance to use it for more than a few hours at a time, the team of student engineers is learning that changing the life of a little boy means changes for them too.

Since the beginning, Manero has been clear about the team’s core values and mission: Assist anyone they can for minimal cost. That’s why they posted all of their work on the prosthetic arm free and online for anyone to use. Resulting requests for help have come from across the U.S., as well as Canada, Belgium and Brazil.

But to stay true to their altruistic mission, the young team must figure out how to expand their labor of love into a legitimate enterprise — all while balancing the demands of college course loads and jobs.

“Our next step is to raise funds to design a version of the arm with a functional elbow,” Manero says. “Currently we are developing a nonprofit organization to support this, so we can help more of the children who have requested assistance.”

The bendable elbow will give Alex greater range of motion and increase functionality. And there are plans for further improvements such as waterproofing and using more robust materials to better withstand the demands of an active 6-year-old.

For Alex, the prosthetic has not only changed his daily life but also inspired what might be a future in engineering.

“It’s really amazing that he can tell you exactly how the electrodes work to control his arm,” Alyson says. “And whenever [the students] come by to make adjustments, he’s very eager to offer suggestions and discuss what might come next.”

Alex-slideshow-6University of Central Florida (UCF) engineering student Tyler Petresky (right) and nurse consultant Tyler Pierce (left) outfitted Alex Pring with his new arm while his mother Alyson looked on during a July news conference.

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