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The lightweight, 3D-printed device, which currently costs under $15 to produce, is changing lives in Ghana, where approximately 650,000 people have untreated wrist and hand injuries.

Clare Scott

August 2, 2023

3 Min Read
map of Africa showing Ghana
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In low- to middle-income countries (LMICs), fewer than half the people requiring rehabilitation for injuries receive the care that they need. In Ghana, for example, approximately 650,000 people live with wrist and hand injuries that are left untreated. One of the reasons for that is the high cost of assistive medical devices. The William Davidson Institute (WDI) at the University of Michigan is dedicated to developing creative ways of helping people in LMICs to thrive. One of its current projects is a 3D-printed hand-rehabilitation device that costs a fraction of conventional devices.

The GripForté is a lightweight, 3D-printed hand rehabilitation device that costs only $14.77 to produce. It weighs 1.5 pounds and has a variable design to accommodate a range of exercises including grip, flexion, and pinching. The hope is that the 3D-printed device will allow individuals in Ghana and other LMICs to access the rehabilitative care they need.

Students identify unmet need

A student team at the University of Michigan initially identified the unmet need in Ghana, and a team of undergraduate mechanical engineering students then designed an initial prototype with input from a Ghanaian physical medicine and rehabilitation physician. The original design was made of wood and cost $1,477 to create in Ghana. Additional issues presented themselves: The device was too heavy and it used rubber bands to create resistance. Rubber bands are not readily available in Ghana.

WDI routinely collaborates with local and national firms, University of Michigan students and faculty, and experts in a variety of fields. To address this particular issue, it enlisted the help of two aerospace engineers within the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering. That led to the development of a device using a 3D printer, solving the issues of cost and weight. It also included 3D-printed springs that could be swapped out to increase or decrease resistance.

Positive patient and therapist feedback

WDI has been working independently and with its partner in Ghana to solicit feedback on the device’s functionality — and the feedback has been highly positive thus far, both from patients and physical therapists. WDI continues to work to improve the device, with goals to reduce the cost to under $10 and the weight to under one pound. The organization also intends to 3D print the device’s bolts as well as springs with increased elasticity, plus add new, alternative panels with different exercises. Finally, it is exploring the idea of using recycled PET to print the device, reducing both cost and waste.

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WDI President Paul Clyde (left) and University of Michigan Engineering graduate student David Sharp work on the GripForté device.

“The ability to print equipment and components on demand using 3D printing is a huge benefit for the healthcare industry — especially in situations that call for high degrees of customization, which is the case with many medical applications,” said Claire Hogikyan, WDI vice president, administration, and project lead on the GripForté device. “From 3D-printed devices for surgical procedures to creating pop-up labs to print equipment, we see tremendous opportunity using 3D-printing technology.”

Hogikyan points out that in LMICs, small things can easily disable medical equipment due to a lack of resources — an MRI machine may be out of commission for months waiting for a simple clip to be replaced. Injuries may also go untreated due to a lack of available splints. The healthcare practice group at WDI has made it its goal to identify new ways to improve both the quality of and access to healthcare in LMICs, and 3D printing is playing a large part in reaching that goal.

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