Story, photos and video by Jasmin Singh

Tully James will be the coolest kid at his school because his hand glows in the dark.

“It will be hard to play hide-and-seek during the night,” said the energetic 9-year-old.

Tully, who lives in Cary, was born without an arm below his left elbow, but that hasn’t stopped him from riding a bike and playing sports. And now he’s got a new wrist and hand, created by a 3D printer at Maker Faire North Carolina on June 7 with the help of the online Google Plus Community e-NABLE.

9-year-old Tully James was born without a left forearm and hand, but he says he can do “anything.”

“I do anything other people do,” Tully said. “I play soccer, basketball and football.”

Tully’s mom, Karen James, said she is amazed by the work done by e-NABLE, an online community with more than 800 members from all over the world. They work together to create and design 3D printed assistive hand devices for those in need.

Tully’s mom, Karen James went looking for help finding a prosthesis for her son. She found it online with the e-NABLE community.

“I have never seen such a nice group of people growing so fast that truly are collaborating on all these projects,” James said. “There’s not ego in it; there’s not ulterior motives. It’s just true generosity and true information sharing and giving back.”

Let’s hang out

James said it all started with a Facebook post in January.

“I tracked down the Google Plus community and posted a question on there, you know, ‘Does anybody live here? Here’s my son, Tully,’” she said.

Within minutes, she got a response from Karyn Traphagen, co-founder of the Triangle-based organization ScienceOnline and a member of the e-Nable community.

Durham resident Karyn Traphagen jumped at the chance to help Tully James get a new artificial hand. Here she shows off another kind of hand she printed at home.

Traphagen said she was online one afternoon when she saw the post from Tully’s mom.

“[She] described his arm and wanted to know if anyone was close to her in the group who could help,” Traphagen said. “I’m pretty close to her, so I jumped on.”

James said within days they met over a Google Plus Hangout, making introductions and determining if this was the right fit for her son.

Printing to e-NABLE

Traphagen said she is interested in how social media can be used in the collaborative process.

“It’s not a group of people who know everything,” she said. “Some people know how to print, some know how to 3D design, some are better at research and some are better at biomechanics.”

Components of an artificial hand printed by Traphagen.

“It’s working together and having access,” she said.

Traphagen said she ran into difficulties when working on the hand, but Tully found a solution.

“I arranged to meet with them and brought over various pieces that I had printed out, and Tully said, ‘Why don’t we just put the hand on my elbow?’ and we’d never thought of that,” Traphagen said.

The arm is a prototype and Traphagen said they are still testing how it will open and close. All designs are free and open to the public.

Printing a thumb using Traphagan’s MakerBot Replicator2. The finger took about 15 minutes to print.

“Most of them are in a library, which anybody in the world can use,” Traphagen said. “You can open them, modify them and print them.”

She said there are many aspects of the device she can control, like how it looks.

A prototype of a finger, including ridges to make gripping easier.

“We are trying to make them not only functional but also expressive of their personality,” Traphagen said. “I think that it’s great that we’re including that aspect.”

Teaching to give back

This year’s Maker Faire NC, an annual event for creative geeks, featured robot races, full-sized hover cars and a full-sized trebuchet, a type of medieval war machine.

But many visitors stopped to watch, transfixed, as Traphagen’s printer manufactured parts of Tully’s new hand. Mike Boulet of Hillsborough said he hopes his sons leave inspired.

Traphagan explains the process of “printing” an artificial hand to Mike Boulet and his son Tim at last month’s Maker Faire in Raleigh.

“That’s what I’m trying to teach my children, that all their skills, all their gifts, they can use them to help people, and this is a perfect example,” he said. “It’s pure inspiration.”

Boulet’s son Tim said he likes the concept of using technology to help others.

“I like the idea of being able to so quickly fix a problem, or even being able to take the first step and help someone,” he said.

Karen James said she would like to get a 3D printer so she can give back to those in a similar situation.

Anyone can join the e-NABLE community by visiting their website, which includes stories, their mission and how to get involved.

“I mean, the whole 3D printer thing is awesome in and of itself, but to find such a good use for it,” James said. “It’s innovative, it’s giving back and it is such an area where a traditional prosthetic costs thousands and thousands of dollars, and here you just have a fraction of that in plastic.”

She also noted the “cool factor.”

“It’s neat to see just how this whole process works, and I think there’s a lot to be learned in that,” James said.

Always independent

James said the family made sure that Tully learned to be independent from a young age.

“We’ve definitely not sheltered him from anything, not coddled him, not protected him or done things for him,” she said.

Tully James, 9, breaks apart a computer at the Raleigh Maker Faire.

And through this independence, James said, Tully learned how to do things in his own way.

“If we tried to figure out how to do things and teach him, by the time we figure it out he will have figured it out and be done,” she said. “There’s really nothing he can’t do.”

The body of Tully’s new hand.

James said Tully’s new hand is not a replacement for him “to wear 24/7 to do everything.”

“It’s for something that would be nice to have two hands to do, whether it’s a strength thing or leverage,” she said.

Tully said he can already do most everything, like buttoning his pants and playing sports. But he is excited at the prospect of multitasking.

“It will be fun when I can do stuff with my left hand and do something with my right hand too at the same time,” he said.

Karyn Traphagen, Tully James and his mom Karen celebrate Tully’s new hand.


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Jasmin Singh

Jasmin Singh, was our intern in 2014. She was an editor at the Daily Tar Heel during the 2014-15 school year and graduated in 2015. Jasmin said her experience with NC Health News left her more likely to...