Mike Isaac

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3-D Printer Brings “Magic Arms” to a Two-Year-Old


I’m not usually a sucker for the warm and uplifting. But I’ll admit it: A recent viral YouTube video featuring a child’s inspiring story has got me all choked up.

Two-year-old Emma Lavelle was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (or AMC), a condition that stunts the development of her muscles and stiffens her joints. As a result, her capacity for movement has been severely limited, and she has spent much of her life undergoing surgeries and corrective treatments. One of the most promising treatments for those with AMC is the WREX device, a type of body cast that aids AMC patients in lifting their limbs with the help of elastic bands and artificial support joints.

Problem was, Emma was far too young and small for the typical size WREX devices. So two Wilmington, Del., researchers — Dr. Tariq Rahman and designer Whitney Sample — developed a scaled-down version of the cast that fit for Emma’s smaller frame.

The two took CAD blueprints from the existing WREX design and scaled them down to the size they would need to be to fit Emma. Unfortunately, the machinery they used to build past WREX devices couldn’t deal with the smaller-sized parts for Emma’s model.

So they got creative. Using a smaller 3-D printer that Rahman already had in his office, the researchers were able to print the smaller WREX parts from the scaled-down designs. Instead of metal, the 3-D printer fabricated the new parts out of ABS plastic, which proved sturdy enough to hold up to everyday use.

The result? Emma can now move her arms about freely and much more easily than ever before. She can play with toys, feed herself and even hug her parents without needing their help. In short, it changed her life.

It’s also cool to see the application of 3-D printing outside of what we’re used to with outfits like Makerbot and the DIY community, which are more generally known for focusing on toys, knick-knacks and funky ephemera. While those are fun, Emma’s story is inspiring, underscoring the capacity in which this technology may be able to aid human development in as yet unknown ways.

Check out her video below and (if you’re anything like this sappy reporter) take a moment to get choked up.


[A small, yet pertinent, disclaimer: The video is produced by Stratasys, the company that makes the 3-D printer the doctors used to create Emma's cast. Still, I'm less concerned about who made the machine, and more interested in what the technology can do for us.]


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