Clipped Wings but Dream Arms
After five months of dedicated research, this humanitarian project has produced its first artificial arms and brought two Quang Nam province students endless joy.
Fitting the arms
Despite some prevailing awkwardness, when she watches her son pouring her a glass of water, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Dao’s face lights up in happiness. Her eyes follow her son’s hands as he holds a glass of water in each of them. They are from Ai Nghia, in the Dai Loc district of Quang Nam province.
“I am very happy,” Mrs. Dao says, touching Hieu’s prosthesis. “The artificial arms have made Hieu much more active. They are still new for him, so we don’t hope for too much, if he can just do a few small things to relieve his complexes that would satisfy us. Just now he actually opened a cupboard to take out his books and put them in his school bag on his own, without my help.”
The prostheses were given by the DTU research group to Hieu, an eighth-grade student at the Nguyen Trai Junior High School. Simple tasks, like pouring water or holding books caused Mr. and Mrs. Dao anxiety for four years. When their son was first disabled there was not much they could do.
Mrs. Dao explains that, at the time, Hieu was still very young but used to help his parents to cut grass and look after the cattle. Then, one day, when he was working with two friends, a shrapnel bomb exploded, took off most of his right arm and part of his left.
Since that time, the pain had made Hieu shy and introverted. But he still longed to go to school and learn to read and write. To do so with no hands, he punched holes in a water pipe and inserted pens to write with.
Ms. Le Thi Thanh Thao, a member of the “Dream Arms” group, explains that she read a newspaper article when she was an exchange student at a US college. Then, when she discovered a university there with a research center that created prostheses for the disabled, she immediately contacted them and brought her ideas back to Vietnam.
Over the past five months, she and her colleagues here have refined the concept. Hieu and one other student, Tran Dang Khoa, in the sixth grade of the Nguyen Hue Junior High School in the Dai Loc district, have now been given the precious artificial arms they had been dreaming of.
Affordable for all
As an advisor to the Vietnamese Robot competition, Mr. Dang Ngoc Sy, CEE Vice Director and head of the research group, considers this project to be straightforward but, at the same time, it must be affordable to everyone. Prosthetics are nothing new but they are not often used in Vietnam because of their high cost.
“To reduce the prices, we first have to master the technology and locate the necessary materials, such as plastic wire, non-stretch zippers, desiccant padding and highly-durable Velcro,” Mr. Sy explains. “In particular, each detailed component, the fingers, hands, elbows, joints and tendons, needs to be accurately measured to exactly fit the parts of the body which are still intact.”
To produce a pair of arms with high accuracy, the group used plastic melting 3D printers for the production of the detailed components. Mr. Dinh Huu Quang, a group member, estimates that the 3D-printing of each component takes from six to fifteen hours.
In many instances, components have to be printed again and again, to compute the right forces and structure on the existing disabled arm. In Hieu’s case, who was not disabled at birth, the shapes of his two remaining parts were completely different and had to be designed and amended several times.
After two tests, the compact artificial arms of Hieu and Khoa satisfied the requirements of the research team. After much experimentation, the boys could grab objects, drink water and ride bicycles. Hieu explains that, while the muscles in his arms are familiarizing themselves with his two new body parts, he cannot yet move as fast as he wants. But he is elated that he can take care of his personal hygiene without bothering his family. He says “he wants to make it more beautiful, like Superman in the movies.”
Artificial arms could cost only 300,000 to 500,000 VND each
According to Mr. Dang Ngoc Sy, the team is focusing on disabled people in the 10 to 25 year-old age group. When working with adolescents, the main objective is to restore their comfort and self-confidence. This is why our team will enhance the product esthetically, with eye-catching colors and more compactness. “We are formulating a strategy to market compact prosthetics, in the 300,000 to 500,000 VND price range per arm, suitable and fun to use by young disabled people,” he explains.