New prosthetic "trooper" arm built with 3-D printer surprises Augusta boy

Liam Porter stepped out of the movie theater Saturday afternoon and saw the Imperial Stormtroopers descending on him and his mouth dropped open and then slowly spread into a smile.


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“Cool,” was about all the normally chatty 7-year-old could manage.

The troopers led him to the Party Room at Regal 20 Cinemas packed with family and friends and there on a table lay his new left arm and hand, done up like the trooper’s arm, and one of their helmets.

“Wow,” Liam said. John Peterson presented the arm to Liam, who was born without part of his left arm, and told him he could now finish his training with the troopers. The instant Liam inserted it onto his left elbow, he could flex the fist and hold a cup.

“What do you think about that?” Peterson asked.

“Cool,” said Liam. who could not stop giggling.

“We’re going to have to tell the whole school about this,” said Liam’s friend, Jacob Yawn.

How Liam got his new arm is part of an international effort to harness new technology to help those who need prosthetics they otherwise couldn’t get. About six months ago, Peterson put together his 3-D printer, which can print out plastic parts from online designs, and wondered what he might do with it.

“There’s lots of cool things you can do with it,” he said. Robotics, for instance, came to mind.

“There’s lots of people doing that online where you are using 3-D printing to help aid robot design,” Peterson said. But while he was researching that, he came across e-NABLE, an online community of people with 3-D printers who use them to make prosthetics for those who need them. The group works with professionals on the designs, which are free and available to anyone who wants to use them.

One of the earliest designs was a Robohand that was a collaboration between a prop maker in Washington and a carpenter in South Africa who created it for a little boy in that country also coincidentally named Liam. The designs range from prostheses to make up for missing digits, to hands to partial arms, like the one Peterson made. Once you join the group and get checked out, the group puts the builders in touch with people who need prosthetics, Peterson said. Frequently, that is children because coverage for prosthetics typically lags until they are fully grown, according to the group’s Web site. Or they are children in developing countries whose families cannot afford them. But getting them now could increase their “opportunities for play and interaction with the world around them,” according to the group.

Liam had a prosthetic when he was much younger but it wasn’t that helpful, said his mother, Ryan.

“It didn’t really move,” she said. “So to a little kid it was nothing but dead weight. He did a lot without it.”

Now she is excited to see what he can do with it.

“Every day he was saying, ‘Oh, if I had my helper arm, maybe I could do it with that,’” Ryan said. “It will make a lot of little things easier.”

Because they are created out of plastic from open-source designs, a prosthetic hand might cost around $50 versus $9,000 for a typical prosthetic hand, Peterson said. That means a new prosthetic can more easily be created later for the growing child, the group said.

Because Liam is getting an arm – this particular model is called the RIT Arm – that was more work and a little trickier. The base design is for a right arm so Peterson had to flip the design and make modifications as he went along.

“There’s very few people who have these so you kind of have to figure it out on your own,” he said. But because it is for a kid, that also meant having more fun with it,

“They want it to look as superhero-ish or as robotic as possible,” Peterson said. ”To them, it is just cool. And it actually frees us up a lot because now we can feel free to try to experiment and do different things. Like, hey, why not put a clamp on a hand? It’s just a tool anyway.”

Liam’s hand has a clamp on it and a rail system to slide different attachments on and off. And Liam is free to think up more.

“Once he gets the arm, he might come up with all kinds of ideas,” Peterson said. And it doesn’t take long for Liam and Jacob to begin scheming about what kinds of weapons they can attach to it, preferably made out of Legos. Jacob suggests a sword but Liam is not convinced.

“I would have to make a rectangle sword,” he said.

The troopers of the Georgia garrison of the 501st Legion – whose motto is “Bad guys doing good” – presented Liam with a “Friend of the Garrison” certificate and he fits right in with them as he poses in his helmet with his left arm outstretched, looking identical to theirs. Inside their armor, Jake and Melissa Barnes, of Atlanta, and local artist Jen Belgin, who is some kind of Imperial officer, turn heads as they lead Liam around the lobby drawing smiles and stares and posing for pictures. Belgin painted the helmet and detailed the arm, writing Liam’s name on it in a squiggly language called Aurebesh.

Using his new trooper arm, Liam high-fives Melissa.

“Looking good, sir,” she said, since Liam is now a commander and outranks her. “I like the helmet.”

Later, things quickly devolve as Liam and Jacob grab their blasters and take the troopers hostage.

“Wow, that escalated really quickly,” Jake says, his hands in the air. Liam is a big fan of the Star Wars movies but the family didn’t know what was coming, Ryan said.

“We were just as surprised as he was,” she said.

It took about three months to make the arm, and around $300 to build, but it “was a fun project” and totally worth it, Peterson said.

“It came out pretty well,” he said. It will take some initial adjusting and as Liam grows it can be tweaked to fit him.

Peterson is hoping more people will be interested in doing it and more people with needs will reach out.

“It’s just something nice to do,” Peterson said.

As he watched his grandson cavort in his helmet, surrounded by family and friends and fellow troopers, Bob Richards smiled.

“That’s something he is going to remember for the rest of his life,” he said.