Logo: University of Southern California

Bionic Hands For Syria

USC Viterbi 3D printing club links a chain of hands from Los Angeles to Syria and Haiti by way of Baltimore
By: Daniel Druhora
October 13, 2015 —


pictured (Left to Right): Alison Glazer, President ('16 Mechanical Engineering); David Goodfellow, Director of Corporate Relations ('18 Computer Science); Maddie McCarthy, Director of Operations ('18 Computer Science)


These little hands, printed in microwave-sized 3D printers, will soon be delivered to wounded children miraculously emerged from the rubble of the most devastating tragedies of our times.


The five-year Syrian war has claimed the lives of nearly 12,000 children. In Haiti, a small island beset by widespread poverty, violence and earthquakes, 20 percent of children will die before the age of five. Countless others will bear the marks of survivors: missing hands, missing feet, parts of them that will never be whole again.

This is a story about a group of USC Viterbi engineers and a USC Dornsife premed student with a different kind of mission. A group of students bound and determined to restore the bodies of children rising from the ashes.

Syrian refugee children. According to UNICEF, nearly 12,000 children have lost their lives in the conflict as of August, 2015 (Photo Wikkimedia Commons)




Alison Glazer, a USC Viterbi mechanical engineering senior and president of student-run club 3D4E (3D For Everyone), had been tinkering with the power of 3D printing for some time. She even built a 3D printer herself, from wood.

But something wasn't feeling right: “It was a feeling of spinning in circles. We were printing cool toys, key chains and iPad holders, but we wanted to do more than what the average kindergartener could.”

Sitting in her lab, surrounded by printed toys and a printed head of the Greek god Zeus, propped like a trophy at her desk, Glazer pondered the limits of this technology.

“What if we could use the machines in a more meaningful way?” she wondered. “3D printing with a purpose.” Little did she know that somewhere across the globe, in a very different lab, someone else was thinking the very same thing.




Kara Tanaka, an accomplished sculptor and premedical graduate of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, was displaying her sculpture “A Sad Bit of Fruit, Pickled in the Vinegar of Grief” at a solo exhibition in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

Forged out of fiberglass, enamel, linen, steel, wood and anodized aluminum, the installation speaks of things lost and the disappearance of the human body, a theme that has strongly marked Tanaka’s artistic journey.

She followed its thread into 3D printing’s new niche – medicine. “When you print a hand for a child, you’re literally sculpting that child’s body, layer by layer,” Tanaka revealed. “It’s an emotional experience. You know that someone’s life will be dramatically changed.”

3D4E has evolved from printing cool cadgets and art to life-saving prosthetics for children in war zones

Tanaka developed a relationship with e-Nable; a global network of volunteers who supply 3D printed hands to children around the world, on demand. The movement was inspired by two strangers: a prop maker from the U.S. and a carpenter from South Africa, 10,000 miles apart, coming together to create a prosthetic hand for a small South African child. They gave the plans away for free, so that those in need of the device could make it for themselves or have someone make it for them.

Tanaka adopted e-Nable’s model and created her own USC Freehand Project to supply e-Nable with as many hands for Haiti as possible. But the human hand is a wickedly complicated sequence of bones and joints; the misalignment of one can throw life off balance. Tanaka realized she didn’t just need to make a hand; she needed to engineer one.

Tanaka had her mission and her strategic contacts. Glazer had the vision, the know-how, the equipment, and the manpower – over 30 USC Viterbi engineering students with varying expertise. 

It was the sort of marriage between real-life medical applications and technology that fuels the fever dreams of innovators in elite circles. Yet this was happening organically, on campus, and at an undergraduate level.

Custom-printing 3D-hands requires an engineering acumen and design expertise, which the club teaches on a regular basis




“I never hung out with engineers,” admitted Tanaka. “Getting to know them and understand them was crucial to the project’s success. USC gave us a taste of what real-world medical breakthroughs are made of – doctors, engineers and artists working together to make the future happen.”

Glazer agreed: “Everything in our future is about collaboration. If it’s happening already at the professional level, starting early means we’re a step ahead of the game.”

For starters, the club received an order from e-Nable to print 12-15 hands of various sizes for Haiti. But their printers were sadly overworked and in need of repairs. They reached out to AIO Robotics, a hot startup out of the USC Viterbi Startup Garage, which donated their new Zeus model printers.

“We met in between classes, weeknights and weekends,” remembered Glazer. “More and more students were joining us from all over the university until we basically took over the Blackstone LaunchPad at Annenberg.”

The old and the new converge in the Blackstone Launchpad, a 3D-printed hand and a turn-of-the-century Royal typewriter

Housed at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism with funding from The Blackstone Charitable Foundation, The LaunchPad connects ideas, people, and resources with students interested in starting their own ventures regardless of major. It continues to provide a temporary home for the growing club.

“Hands for Haiti” was such a success that e-Nable approached 3D4E with another even bigger challenge. They wanted to send hands inside the most dangerous part of the world right now – Syria. And they recruited Baltimore area Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America to help them do it.




Historically, Baltimore is probably most notable for being the birthplace of the national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” But in April 2015, the world turned its eyes on the “Charm City” for a very different reason. The death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American resident of Baltimore who died in police custody, sparked a period of civil unrest that forced the government to declare a state of emergency. 

3D4E’s first batch of 3D printed hands destined for Syria was now en route to Baltimore. But there was a serious problem. The city was on lockdown. Mail wasn’t getting delivered, schools were shutdown and the streets were unsafe.

Tanaka was in constant contact with e-Nable project coordinator on the ground, Maria Esquela, who had brought together teams of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, keeping them off the streets, to assemble the hands. Five thousand miles away, Syrian children taking shelter from bombs dropping from the sky, were waiting for them. 

“We were on the phone almost every day to make sure the hands made it intact and on time,” says Tanaka. They had to break through a vicious snowstorm, rioting and arson, but when they finally arrived, the scouts were proud to earn their merit badges assembling these cool superhero hands for the children of Syria. Esquela recalls how "everyone was so thankful to make such a positive impact during such a negative time in our lives."

Baltimore area boy scouts assembled the 3D-printed hands for Syrian children during the Baltimore riots (Photo courtesy of e-Nable Foundation)

The leaders of 3D4E were so inspired to see their work defy conflict zones and bring people together in such a powerful way; they made the Freehand Project a permanent feature of their club.

“It was a strong statement, and in many ways a quiet protest against hatred and violence, ” said Tanaka. “And it fueled our creativity and desire to do more,” added Glazer. After the Syria project wrapped, they didn’t throw a victory party. They did what all good engineers do -- they went back to the drawing board.




Perhaps the most ambitious of their plans comes from 3D4E member and USC Viterbi biomedical engineering graduate student, Stephen Wilson.

Wilson, who narrowly escaped a tragic car accident and learned to walk again using the ReWalk exoskeleton system, is working on a myoelectric prosthetic powered by the arm's own muscles.

Stephen Wilson ('17 M.Eng. Biomedical/Mechanical Engineering)

“It uses electromyography, a basic signal process that responds to muscle connections, essentially mimicking the hand’s natural movements," explained Wilson. Many have tried the feat but failed to integrate it seamlessly with the body's own physiology. Wilson wants to perfect the technology specifically for the elbow, a devilishly sensitive contraption of muscles, joints and ligaments without which the hand is useless.

“Our only handcuff is funding,” Wilson pointed. “Each component for the elbow is ultra expensive and we want to do it with integrated electronics to make it more robust.”

They’d also love to upload their designs onto sophisticated and large-scale 3D printers that are mostly in the hands of big companies and well-funded science organizations. It now takes them 20-30 hours to print one hand for a child at roughly $65 per hand. As the technology quickly advances into metals, they’d like to use it to make superior bionic hands.



“We want any student who’s interested in the technology to be able to harness it’s potential,” said USC Viterbi instructor Sathyanaraya Raghavachary, 3D4E’s faculty advisor. Saty, who was a senior graphics developer at DreamWorks Animation Studios on movies like “Madagascar,” “Shrek” and “How to Train Your Dragon," will teach an introductory course in prototyping and rendering open to all majors in spring, 2016. “We’re giving students the tools and the know-how to create whatever and wherever their imagination takes them. If you can dream it, you can print it.”

3D4E has a few projects in their imagination: printing a 3D map of the USC campus, creating a novel scanning system for capturing a full 3D model of the human body and hosting inter-chapter competitions with other schools. For now, they’re experiencing the excitement of being among the hottest clubs on campus. Their first general meeting for the Fall 2015 semester drew over 150 interested students.

But just because the club is run by USC Viterbi engineers it doesn’t mean you have to be one to join. “That’s the beauty of our club,” according to Jordan Seeley, biomedical engineering senior and 3D4E executive vice president. “And the reason we’re called 3D For Everyone. We even have faculty who are technically members of our club.”

pictured (left to right): Kara Tanaka, Nina Lightdale-Miric, MD (CHLA Director, Pediatric Hand and Upper Extremity Surgery Program), Jared Reyes, Jordan Seeley, Alison Glazer

“We have artists, architects, aerospace engineers and business start ups looking to design prototypes,” noted Lucy Roland, vice president and USC Viterbi mechanical engineering junior. “The more diversity, the more opportunities for innovation and original design.”

For Tanaka, who loves seeing beautiful things emerge out of rough raw material, it has always been about breaking the stigma of wearing prosthetics: “Children who need a hand, no matter where they’re from, now have access to a functional, original and low-cost prosthetic customized to suit them perfectly.”

“Not to mention how cool they look,” added Glazer. “Have you seen their awesome robo-hands? We're giving them something that actually makes other kids jealous.”

3D4E is now making hands for the children of Sierra Leone.