Photo Credit: UNLV Photo Services
Angels in the outfield? Not quite. On September 16 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, all eyes were on the infield – the pitcher’s mound, to be exact.
There, 8-year-old Hailey Dawson threw her final first pitch of the Major League Baseball season and completed her goal to throw the first pitch at all 30 MLB ballparks.
A personal victory, indeed, but it’s also one with a global impact. Hailey has been artfully pitching with a 3D-printed hand — made with plastics made possible by petrochemicals. Born without a right pectoral muscle, which also affects the growth of her right hand, Hailey has Poland Syndrome. She has been successfully using MLB pitching mounds across the U.S. and Canada as a platform to raise awareness about the rare birth defect.
Even more, Hailey has been giving wings to a game-changing 3D printed technology that is making prosthetics more affordable to more people worldwide.
Her “Journey to 30” began March 31 at Petco Park in San Diego, but really this story began several years ago, when Hailey’s mom, Yong Dawson, started researching prosthetics for her daughter. She wanted Hailey to be able to hold a bike’s handlebar more easily, and Hailey wanted to play baseball. Traditional prosthetics, however, cost $20,000 or more, an amount far from feasible for kids who tend outgrow the device.
Yong turned to another groundbreaking technology: the internet. There, she discovered a South African organization called Robohand, which uses 3D printing technology, along with wires, nuts, bolts and hinges, to create more affordable prosthetic hands. Robohand shares its models online so that anyone in the world can create their own prosthetics. It asks only that the models aren’t sold for a profit.
Yong, of Henderson, Nev., near Las Vegas, then emailed the University of Nevada Las Vegas’s (UNLV) Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering asking for assistance.
The school’s faculty leaped at the chance to help, with Brendan O’Toole, chair of the mechanical engineering department, and Mohamed Trabia, associate dean for research, graduate studies, and computing taking on the project alongside UNLV students, according to the university.
While O’Toole had previously worked with foot and ankle prosthetics, they didn’t involve 3-D printing.
“We liked the idea of a community-based design where we’re using our research and resources to help someone,” O’Toole said in a university report.
Interestingly, none of the roughly 100 Robohand concepts were a perfect fit for Hailey, so the team started from scratch and created a customized hand, “blending design ideas and materials found around the world through internet research,” the university said.
Using a Stratasys Fortus 250MC 3-D printer, the team benefited from precision printing of parts.
As UNLV’s staff described it: “In the machine, a yarn-like spool of plastic filament connects to a print head, which sprays layers of plastic just 0.007-inches thick until eventually smooth, very real-looking hand shapes form. The team chose ABS* plastic for all-weather use.”
After much refining, workable prosthetics were created for Hailey. According to an article by UNLV last year about Maria Gerardi, the UNLV graduate student credited with that refinement, each Robohand takes about a week to make – a relatively gracious timeline for a rapidly growing girl. And the cost is far lower than traditional prosthetics: “Each hand costs about $200 in supplies,” the school reports.
The process “requires a mix of biology and kinesiology know-how (to understand how the human body and muscles involved in various grasping motions work), along with math (to calculate part dimensions and build 3-D models) and engineering (to design components that are small yet thick enough to not break),” according to UNLV’s engineering department.
It’s an innovation that can be shared – and then applied – to people in need worldwide.
And it helped hurl Hailey into the Major Leagues.
Before this season, Hailey had thrown pitches at the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles and also in the fourth game of the 2017 World Series. Her story so inspired, she was invited to fulfill a dream to pitch at all 30 MLB stadiums. For each game, Hailey used a different hand to pitch with the respective team’s logo.
The large MLB stage has had a significant impact, inspiring not only baseball greats like Derek Jeter, but also helping to push the envelope on inspiring technology. Stratasys, a 3D-printing company that gave printing resources to UNLV, told the news publication SportTechie that Hailey’s Hand is “motivating advances in biomedical engineering and 3D printing around the U.S.”
Also, her story has inspired others. According to UNLV, a local Las Vegas family who heard about Hailey’s Hand in the news contacted the college, prompting UNLV engineering students to work with their daughter as well.
“There’s been so much publicity around it, and this is progressing at a rapid rate,” Jesse Roitenberg, an education segment sales leader at Stratasys, told SportTechie of the technology.
And so, indeed, there was one extra angel on the field at Angel Stadium on September 16.
Hailey’s Hand has done far more than just pitch in. It’s showed the world that anyone with the right combination of heart and desire along with the right technology and materials can do almost anything.
What does it take to make Hailey’s hand possible? It takes one brave little girl, Hailey – to wear that hand, and to wear that hand in front of 30,000 people while throwing out a first pitch. It takes a team of really smart engineers to make a working hand (and just think about how complicated your own hand is for a moment, to appreciate what a task that was).
And yet, that still isn’t enough. Imagine you only had wood, or stone, or even metal to work with. You might make a hand that LOOKS just like a hand – artists have done that for centuries. But to make a hand that WORKS like a hand – for that, you need the right material – and the team at UNLV found that in ABS plastic.
But you can’t find ABS plastic in a forest, or a field, or a mine. ABS plastic has to be made, and it’s made from petrochemicals – the chemicals that in turn, we make from petroleum and natural gas. A material that’s strong and durable and lightweight. A material that is affordable to produce and to shape (thanks to the 3D printing), which is especially important for a kid’s prosthetic, because as they grow, it needs to be replaced periodically. (And, it IS a little odd to think about, in the case of a hand, but ABS plastic is also easily recycled and reused – so no waste.)
So if we didn’t have petroleum. If we didn’t have natural gas. We wouldn’t have many of the things, and much of the materials for making things, that we take for granted in our world today. And one of those things we wouldn’t have, would be the miracle that we saw at ballparks around the country this summer.
*ABS stands for acrylonitrile butadiene styrene – which would be just what it’s made from: the polymers styrene and acrylonitrile, which are strong and stable; along with synthetic polybutadiene rubber, used for toughness (styrene makes it look good too). Put those three together in the lab, with a catalyst here, a catalyst there, and after a few chemical reactions, you’ve created ABS plastic.