By far, one of the most inspirational and impressive projects that’s come from the 3D printing/DIY community has been the work we’re seeing on open-source assistive devices, and one online organization that is playing a major role in making this happen is e-NABLE, a group started by Dr. Jon Schull of Rochester Institute of Technology.

Interview with e-NABLE Founder Jon Schull

Reprinted with Permission | Solidoodle

What started with just a few people has quickly grown to over one-thousand with the help of eager volunteers, and online forums and tools. Check out our Q&A with Dr. Schull below for his perspective on what’s been accomplished, where things are heading (exoskeletons?!) and how the digital era and open-source projects are accelerating innovation, especially for good!


How large is e-NABLE’s network? Who are your members?

Our best estimate comes from the private Google Plus Community, which numbers 1,073 people today and seems to grow by about 5-10% a week, week after week!  Then there is our website, the facebook page and the map.


When did you first hear about the open-source prosthetic hand project and what drew you to get involved?

A year ago, I came across  a Youtube video with Richard Van As describing the hand he and Ivan Owen had developed and open-sourced, and noting that lots of kids would benefit from this.

Comments on Youtube videos are rarely inspirational but I saw several that said “this is cool.  I have a 3D printer.  I’d do this.”  So I created a custom Google map and linked to it in a  comment of my own, saying simply, “If you’re willing to receive inquiries from people who need an assistive device, put yourself on this map.  Crowdsource the distribution network!”

The map began filling up and we knew we were on to something.


How does the RIT MAGIC Center and your work there play into this?

My home base is in RIT’s Center for Media Arts Games Interaction and Creativity (MAGIC) where I coordinate an initiative on “Access and Collaboration Technologies” (MAGIC ACT—get it?). e-NABLE is our most illustrious exploration of Access and Collaboration Technologies.  But  we have also developed a real-time interactive whiteboard with video for distributed collaborative engineering and for connected learning and coaching, as well as aGoogle Glass-based “reading glasses” app for the visually impaired(EMDASH)you hold a book in front of your eyes and the app reads to you!


What impact have e-NABLE’s members been able to make so far due to the rapid growth? Is it progress in R&D on models, implementation with creation of devices for individuals, or a even mix of both?

Frankly I think our members have made several important contributions so far:

  • They’ve produced wonderful new designs (our Visual Tree is illustrative, but  greatly in need of updating)

  • They’ve delivered scores of hands.

  • They’ve helped parents and schoolchildren learn about 3D printing.

  • And they’ve demonstrated that there are probably tens of thousands of talented, skilled, and big-hearted volunteers around the world who can and will use emerging technologies and Internet collaborations to innovate for underserved populations.


Any idea of how many individuals have benefited so far from e-NABLE’s work?

We estimate that our members have directly delivered perhaps 50 hands.  But our designs are available for download from third-party sites and we keep reading news reports about people who came to make hands through that route.  So there are many more out there.  And we can expect that impact to  grow with our membership and offerings, including ever-better dissemination tools like our new Resources page or our new Hand-o-matic software in development for schools and libraries (coming soon).


Where are your members located? Do you see a particularly strong need in any geographic areas?

They are all over the world but mostly in the developed nations, as evidenced by this map.   Need is probably greatest in undeveloped nations and warzones.  As word spreads, we are increasingly getting queries from places like India, Africa, Syria and Haiti and we are eager to help.  Exactly how that will happen remains to be seen.


Do you see any limitations to 3D printing parts for assistive devices; any particular benefits besides cost?

The limitations are not clear yet. I think the biggest benefit is not cost—it’s the opportunity for people to download, modify, print, collaborate on, and reshare models over the Internet.  The design cycle is vastly shortened, and the brain power and creativity unleashed is huge.


What does open-source file-sharing and consumer 3D printing mean for innovation of products not being developed for profit? What kind of impact will this have, if any, on commercial production of assistive devices?

That’s the 64 jillion dollar question.  In our hands (heh!), the combination of open-source file-sharing, consumer 3D printing, and humanitarian incentive seems to be explosive.  We’re giving away devices that have been favorably compared to $40,000 myoelectric hands.  That has to impact commercial markets eventually.  But not necessarily for the worse.  Right now, we serve complementary different markets: rich or well-insured adults get expensive commercial devices while poor adults and growing children get inexpensive replaceable 3D-printed prosthetics for free(!).   When those markets converge or collide, then what happens?  Hopefully prices come down, needs get met, lives are improved, providers serve a greater good, and social health expenditures are more effectively spent.  And if all those who need prosthetics end up getting prosthetics, the market will have expanded radically.  Alternatively, this could turn out to be more like Craigslist meets classified ads– but, given the hardware and regulatory requirements, I doubt it.


Since Ivan Owen and Richard Van As first put their models up to use, how much progress have you seen made?

The original hand looks quaint today–like an 8-bit graphic in a 64-bit world.  The new models are more organic, more functional and, of course, much more diverse.  And it’s still the early days.

Any ideas of other humanitarian applications for 3D printing that you’re aware of or that you think will eventually develop, whether it’s due to advancements in digital fabrication technology or someone taking the initiative to develop the application?

Arms are available now.  Richard Van As is working on a leg.  Exoskeletons for weak hands and for whole bodies are coming.

I’m sure there are non-medical applications as well.  Shelter, shoes, on-demand tool fabricators for remote populations.  Who knows?

It seems like both patents and open-source licenses encourage innovation in their own ways. As a professional in the field, what’s your take on the two.

In its day, the patent system was a brilliant social invention for fostering technical innovation.  But today, the system is routinely “gamed” by big businesses and it often–not always–discourages or retards innovation.  In the age of the internet, open source licenses allow good ideas to spread, evolve, and be tested at maximal speed with global reach.   In a purpose economy, the “Impact Imperative” may trump the profit motive.


Do you see any changes happening in their applications, especially with regard to medical research?

I suspect that what we’re seeing now presages a more radical revolution that will come when Do-It-Yourself/Do-It-Together biologists routinely open-source genetically engineered proteins and organisms.


For anyone interested in getting involved, how can they help and where do you have the most need?

There are many ways to help:  visit, and donate time, money or materials.  Either way, the return on investment is extraordinary, both personally and socially:  You get to help build—and live in—a global village that is high-tech, progressive, and humane.

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