A 3D printer at work at the Oceanside MakerSpace in Parksville brings a smile to Ethan Dean’s face. He’s planning of using 3D printed objects and parts from printers themselves to build a prototype prosthetic arm. — Adam Kveton Photo

Vancouver Island teen aims to build a bionic arm

Prosthetic prototype project latest in Nanoose student’s math, tech ambitions

Students have come a long way from tin-can telephones, volcano science projects and paper airplanes.

Current computer designing and 3D printing are just some of the innovations that have opened up a new world of creation for people right in their own home.

Whether it’s devising science experiments headed for the International Space Station, or writing code to control a robot built with Lego, kids in the Parksville Qualicum Beach area have a variety of exciting and ambitious science and tech projects underway in school, clubs and elsewhere.

For 15-year-old baseball player and math wiz Ethan Dean, that project is to build the prototype for a bionic arm.

Inspired by his interest in 3D printers (he’s currently designing and building his own), Dean plans to build a prosthesis meant to stand in for a person’s lost limb.

The idea is to create a prosthetic that is more functional than simpler options that rely on a pulley system — for instance, to translate a bend of the wrist to closing the joints of plastic fingers. Instead, Dean plans to use electric motors and biomedical sensors to cause motion.

While bionic arms can cost upwards of $20,000, Dean, a Ballenas Secondary student from Nanoose Bay, hopes that his electric prosthetic could be much more affordable.

He admits that the project is very ambitious, and that there are a lot of skills he’ll have to develop to see it through, but he said he hopes it could help him earn a post secondary scholarship for engineering, math and science.

The goal right now is to come up with a prototype.

To that end, Dean set up a GoFundMe page with a goal of raising $4,000 to cover the cost of parts. The page had raised $226 as of Nov. 12.

He’s also connected up with the Oceanside Community MakerSpace (located at the McMillan Arts Centre) to get tips from local 3D printer enthusiasts, hobbyist electricians and others.

“MakerSpace was set up as a place for people to make things and also share their experience with the community,” said Jim Bennett with the Oceanside MakerSpace.

“I love robotics,” said Dean of his interest in starting this project. “I like learning new things, and it’s really exciting once you get it working — it’s rewarding.”

Getting his first 3D printer was an entry point into that kind of work. Ethan’s dad, James, agreed to pay for half of Ethan’s first 3D printer. “So we looked on Amazon and we found like the cheapest one that we could find,” said James.

“It was always breaking and he was always having to troubleshoot and fix it,” he said.

After working at ParksWest in their computer department, Ethan and James went in on a more expensive 3D printer, and now he’s designing and building his own.

Three-D printers work by moving a small nozzle along three axes, extruding heated plastic. Layers are slowly built up until a 3D piece is made.

After taking apart one of his 3D printers, Ethan found he had a variety of extra components, and that’s where his idea for a prosthetic arm came from.

Though he didn’t know much about prosthetics at the start, Ethan is doing plenty of research to see what he can design, engineer, print, code and build.

To check out his GoFundMe page, go to www.gofundme.com/prosthetic-arm-build-project.

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