Technologizer

How a TIME Article Led to the Invention of a $100 3D-Printed Artificial Limb

This prosthetic arm can be produced in around six hours.

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Not Impossible

16-year-old Daniel Omar of Sudan with his prosthetic arm

After a little more than a month, Daniel’s arms have healed into neat, smooth stumps, with barely a scar. The same can’t be said of his mind. “Without hands, I can’t do anything,” says Daniel. “I can’t even fight. I’m going to make such hard work for my family in the future.” He looks me straight in the eye. “If I could have died, I would have,” he says.

That’s the bleak conclusion to a bleak TIME story by Alex Perry from April 2012. It concerns Daniel Omar, a Sudanese 14-year-old who had his hands blown off by a bomb dropped by the Sudanese government in an attack on rebel forces. Dr. Tom Catena, an American surgeon who lives and works in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, saved Daniel’s life, but Omar was still left incomplete. He’s one of 50,000 amputees in South Sudan.

Remarkably, though, the story went on to become much, much happier — and yes, it’s one that makes sense to be told here in TIME.com’s tech section.

Among the people who read Perry’s article was Mick Ebeling, the co-founder and CEO of Not Impossible Labs, a research firm that aims to tackle daunting healthcare challenges using low-cost, open-source methods. Moved by the story, he ended up traveling to the Nuba Mountains, where he met Daniel. More important, Ebeling helped him, and ignited an effort that could help thousands of other people in Daniel’s situation.

While there — in an undertaking he called “Project Daniel” — Ebeling worked with Catena to set up a lab at a local hospital. Using consumer-grade 3D printers, the lab produces low-cost prosthetic limbs, designed to be simple and affordable enough for anyone who needs one. In November, Daniel got the first one, and others in Nuba have also received them since. Not Impossible is providing the open-source design free of charge, in hopes that amputees all over the world might benefit from it.

The prosthetic arm Daniel received cost around $100 to produce, and can be printed in about six hours. It can’t do everything that the limb it replaces did: Control over the fingers isn’t precise, it isn’t capable of lifting heavy weights and special attachments are required for jobs such as holding utensils. In the future, refined versions of the design may improve on its functionality.

Already, though, it’s capable of restoring a large measure of the independence that amputees lose along with their limbs. After receiving his new arm, Daniel fed himself for the first time in two years. And now he’s helping to produce additional limbs for other recipients.

Ebeling is at CES here in Las Vegas, where he spoke about his work as a guest during Intel’s keynote. (The company provided equipment and support for Project Daniel.) That limb won’t get a tiny fraction of the attention that will be lavished on 4K TVs, tablets and assorted other gadgets and gizmos at the show this week — but it’s hard to imagine any other device here doing more to make the world a better place.

Here’s Not Impossible’s own video about Project Daniel:

MORE: Check out TIME Tech’s complete CES coverage