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Kids are 3D printing their own “superhero cyborg” prosthetic arms. (Water cannons optional)

Sarah O’Rourke
Power boost.
  • Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

For five days, superheroes converged at Autodesk’s sprawling maker space in San Francisco.

In a program called “Superhero Cyborgs,” six kids with upper-limb disabilities—among the 1,500 born each year in the US—learned to tinker with the latest 3D-modeling and -printing tools during the January workshop. Their mission: To create the mighty prosthetic arm of their dreams.

“What happens if we address a missing limb as a blank canvas rather than a disability?” wrote Kate Ganim, co-director of KIDmob, a non-profit “kid-integrated” design firm that organized the event with Autodesk.

To reimagine the possibilities for standard, boring prostheses, participants ranging from age 10 to 15 learned plaster casting, electronics, sewing, and thermoplastics. What kinds of superhuman powers did the kids design for themselves? Maybe an elastic arm like Mr. Fantastic? Or Man of Steel forearms? It turns out, the superpower they wanted most was just the ability to have more fun.

Designs include a Nerf gun holder, a bow and arrow, and a five-nozzle glitter shooter called “Project Unicorn.” One boy designed a device that would allow him to poke his brother.

Sarah O’Rourke
Sarah O’Rourke

Similarly, Sydney Howard, 12, designed an elbow-activated water gun in order to make her unbeatable during water fights. “Originally I was going to design a glitter gun, but I realized that I had more water fights with my family than glitter fights,” she tells Quartz.

Sarah O’Rourke
Prepare to be soaked, brothers.

Howard’s group is the second batch of kids with upper-arm disabilities to work with Autodesk designers at their so-called “maker’s paradise.” Like the LEGO-based IKO Prosthetics System, the Superhero Cyborgs program is finding exciting possibilities for the additive manufacturing technology once relegated to making dust-gathering 3D-printed trinkets just a few years ago.

After the workshop, the kids will continue to work with their design mentors to help them refine their prototypes. As the children grow, constant tweaking and tailoring needs to be made to their prosthesis, and 3D printing allows those adjustments to be manufactured efficiently.

Howard explains that she will work on making her water bazooka shoot longer distances and design a better reservoir so she won’t need to stop in the midst of intense water battles with her siblings.

Sarah O’Rourke
Get ready for glitter!

Ganim, whose older sister was born without a hand, says that kids with disabilities are just as stubborn, determined, and resourceful. ”[They] understand that they’re entirely capable and they’ll figure things out themselves.”

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