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UIX: Creating new futures is a hands on project for Aaron Brown

Aaron Brown

Through 3D printing and as a volunteer for e-NABLE, Aaron Brown and his company Axis Lab develop and create "super" assistive hand devices for children and adults. Now his prosthetic designs with comic-inspired themes are something to marvel at, both here in Grand Rapids and everywhere he takes them.
Boundaries aren't a concern to Aaron Brown, and he's helped many others adopt a similar way of thinking.
It was when both 3D printing and an organization called e-NABLE were in their infancy that Brown first picked up on the trend of 3D printing prosthetic limbs. He started  just a few years ago, developing and creating assistive hand devices for children and adults in his basement, starting with a snap-together model e-NABLE provided the designs for. Now a worldwide organization with over 5,000 volunteers, including Brown, e-NABLE has a vast network of 3D printing enthusiasts that create and donate these hand devices to those in need.
Brown's specialty is designing hands with superhero themes. He's made dozens of them, spanning the Marvel and DC universes, but his first was modeled after Wolverine. Rounded plastic claws are attached to the hand with Velcro, and are completely safe and removable.
"I was always a big comic book fan as a kid," Brown says. "I printed some safe, velcro, and plastic Wolverine claws, which have been a hit everywhere I take them." 
Brown's aspirations to build a career around 3D printing have since taken off and he opened his own 3D print shop, AxisLab, just over 6 months ago. It not only funds his philanthropic efforts; the learning space he's built at Axis Lab helps him pass on the knowledge and creativity to change the world through innovation to others. He says there is a lot of potential in machines like 3D printers, and building prosthetic hands is just the beginning, although a momentous one.

"The first time I built a hand for a child and I saw him picking something up, it stuck with me for weeks," he says. "It was the most amazing feeling and that's why I continue to do what I do. Every time I build one for a child, it's like, who's next?"

It was an American prop maker and a South African carpenter who first planted the seed that grew into e-NABLE. What is today a network of inventors, engineers, 3D print enthusiasts, occupational therapists, teachers, designers, and more across the world was once a small project to create an articulated prosthetic hand for a young boy.

The way these hands are designed, the fingers and thumb can close and grip objects by the movement of the wearer's arm and wrist. There are no complicated motors or sensors, and all the parts are easily cleaned and replaced. Originally called the "Robohand," the open source design was released to the 3D printing community.

When Brown took the design and put his own superhero spin on it, he almost immediately caught the attention of Marvel. He was asked to be part of a charity event for the Marvel Universe LIVE! show. Brown and other e-NABLE volunteers were flown to Dallas where they, and the show's cast and crew, assembled hands for children in need. Creating, assembling, and distributing these hands are now a regular part of the show.
Parents can download the files themselves from e-NABLE's site and 3D print them, or e-NABLE can help them find a 3D printer like Brown and AxisLab capable of creating the necessary parts either in their locality, or further away but able to ship.
The strength and effectiveness of these hands comes not only from e-NABLE's network of devoted makers and 3D printers, but crowdsourced innovation from those who use and test the hands daily. Brown says there is even a Google+ group for makers with similar aspirations in 3D printing. 

"The hands are great but we can create arms and legs and so many other things," Brown says. "I like to say we're just working our way up the body."
All the design files for several different hand designs can be found on MakerBot's Thingiverse or YouMagine, with instructions on which files to download and print on e-NABLE's site. The Handomatic application, provided by e-NABLE, also allows people to generate and scale the right designs for the device they need.
Brown opened AxisLab as the first and only public 3D printing shop in Grand Rapids. The shop specializes in rapid prototyping, material sales, and classes. His hope for the shop is that people in the community see it as a place of learning and innovation, paving the way for even more game changing projects in the future.
Brown's AxisLab is located at 4291 Lake Michigan Drive NW, in Standale. For more information, visit axislab3d.com.
For more information on e-NABLE, visit http://enablingthefuture.org

Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com. 
Photography by Steph Harding 
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