Feature: Meet the little girl... with the multi-coloured bionic hand

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“Look!” said six year old Charlie Cousins. “I’ve got ten fingers!”

Charlie showed her fingers to her mum and family friend Alex - including the five new yellow ones made for her in a small workshop at Sheffield Technology Parks.

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“She chose the colours herself,” said Charlie’s mum Kate Greener. “Now she’s got a new hand, she didn’t see any point in hiding it!”

Charlie was born without a right hand and forearm following a blood clot during Kate’s pregnancy.

Although she has learned to use her left hand for many tasks at school and home, she was offered a replacement prosthetic limb through the NHS, but found it heavy and unwieldy (and not very colourful).

A few months ago Kate saw a TV programme about Team UnLimbited, a small voluntary group from Swansea offering open source designs for children’s prosthetic limbs.

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Neighbour Alex Wetton was alerted by his daughter Mia, a friend of Charlie’s, and asked his designer friends for advice on 3D printing.

They pointed him in the direction of Sheffield’s 3D Folkes company, run by former Sheffield Hallam University student Ben Folkes, who offered to meet Charlie and print her a new hand, using one of the freely available open source designs from Team UnLimbited.

“I thought it was a brilliant idea when Alex called us about Charlie,” said Ben.

“It was really cool to get involved in something like this, which is very different to the clips, brackets and components we’re often working on,” he added.

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Alex has driven Charlie and Kate over from their home in Marple four times since the work began six weeks ago.

Ben and colleague Will Jones have been adapting the original design.

And last week they printed out the first working prototype for the delighted Charlie to try.

Ben and his team are carrying the work out without charge, and jokes that Charlie is their ‘guinea pig’.

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Charlie’s initial limb now needs some more work to help her bend her arm and fingers more easily - smaller scale 3D printers like 3D Folkes can make simple changes and reprint relatively easily compared to gearing up a whole factory.

23 year old Ben only started the company two years ago while he was still a mechanical engineering student at Sheffield Hallam.

He recognised the 3D industry was growing quickly so after running out of space to print for friends in his student bedroom, he gained a grant from the Prince’s Trust to set up his first workshop.

As printing and printer repair work came in from companies and students, he had to move to a larger office in the city centre this year.

“3D printing will revolutionise and decentralise the manufacturing industry as the barriers to entry get smaller, and printers get faster and cheaper,” said Ben, who sees Sheffield’s universities and manufacturing and engineering expertise linking perfectly with small local printing companies which will eventually become more competitive local option to oversees injection-moulding factories.

Waiting times for NHS prosthetics (which in Charlie’s case was six times heavier than her new Sheffield-printed arm) can be over a year, and Ben reckons there will be hundreds of children who will benefit from a light prosthetic limb made to their own individual requirements.

He intends to keep his team’s designs as open source so further improvements and adjustments can be made by others around the world.

Now Charlie will be testing out her new arm to see if it can help her bake with her mum, she said, and will soon return for her second fitting with the adjusted design - which will still be purple and yellow, she insists.