Though the audience wasn’t large, Sarah Valentiner, 12, of DeKalb, was a bit nervous about playing her violin. After all, she was performing with a new hand.
The creator of her prosthetic hand, Oluseun Taiwo, was nervous too. The Northern Illinois University engineering major
, had spent three months perfecting the device, using a 3D printer to churn out multiple versions to get it just right.
When her bow inadvertently touched the strings, the violin screeched and Sarah wrinkled her nose. Within a few moments however, she was beaming as she launched into a Vivaldi concerto. After about a minute she stopped and conferred with Taiwo and NIU Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Federico Sciammarella
. The three talked about fit, angles, articulation and other details, carrying on a collaboration that has been part of the project from the very start.
Sarah, who was born without a right hand, has been playing the violin for about two years, taking up the instrument after seeing friends enjoy it. For help in overcoming her disability, she and her family first approached the Shriners Club, which provided a functional prosthetic, but one that had limitations. Then her parents discovered e-NABLE a global network of volunteers who are using their 3D printers, design skills and personal time to create free prosthetic hands for those in need. The organization shares open-source plans, including one designed for violinists. Her parents, both professors in the Department of Psychology at NIU, contacted the university’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology where they found Sciammarella, who is recognized internationally for his work in additive manufacturing (3D printing).
Sciammarella jumped at the opportunity and offered the project to Taiwo. “It was a great opportunity to let him use the skills he has been learning in the classroom. It allowed him to unleash the inquisitive ability that engineers develop,” Sciammarella says. “It was a very practical project, but one with a great impact.”
For Taiwo, 20, of Naperville, the project quickly turned into a passion.
“When I started in engineering I figured I’d just get my degree and get a job. This changed me. It gave me goals. I’ve found what I want to do with the rest of my life. I want to design and build objects that make life better for others.” says Taiwo. “One of my professors always tells me ‘Do something that matters.’ This is one of those things.”
Taiwo is an NIU PROMISE Scholar
. The program (which is funded by the National Science Foundation) provides scholarship and academic support to students interested in science, technology, math and engineering. The goal is to enhance America’s global competitiveness and to help the country maintain its position as the world’s leading innovator by preparing students for the jobs of the future. Taiwo’s work in the lab with Sciammarella was an offshoot of his participation in the program.
Taiwo said he relishes the challenge of working with Sarah to improve upon the e-NABLE design. After many painstaking measurements and a lot of collaboration, they refined the design. The final iteration weighs about half as much as the original and fits much better on Sarah’s slender wrist. The adaptation that Taiwo is most proud of, however, was a rework of how the hand connects to the bow.
The original design required Sarah to disassemble her bow and insert it into the prosthetic every time she played. Taiwo hit upon the idea of separating the bow holder from the hand, so that it can be semi-permanently attached to the bow, and snapped to the prosthetic when she wants to play.
“It just made sense,” he says. “Taking the bow apart, and reassembling it with one hand, is no easy task.” He plans to share the adaptation with the e-NABLE network in hopes that it can help others.
Finding those type of solutions is what excites him about pursuing a career in engineering and 3D printing, Taiwo says. “You become the interface between the designer and the end user, working to make the piece a little better at every step along the way.”
Sarah is delighted with the outcome so far. “It makes me a much more confident player. It improves my tone and lets me use more of the bow,” she says.
The process of collaborating with Taiwo and Sciammarella has also given her some ideas about a career path. “It made me think about being an engineer. Working with Oluseun and Dr. Sciammarella gave me a better understanding of what engineers do – they come up with strategies to make things work better,” she says. They change the world.”