For Aaron Westbrook, the answer of where to find recycled material to fabricate a prosthetic arm was on the bottom of a plastic coffee cup.

For Aaron Westbrook, the answer of where to find recycled material to fabricate a prosthetic arm was on the bottom of a plastic coffee cup.

Westbrook, a New Albany High School senior, used a 3-D printer to create himself two prosthetic-arm models. He printed the first one when he was a sophomore.

A few months ago, he decided to use the technology to create an arm for Maddie Horvath, a first-grader at Scioto Ridge Elementary School in Powell, who, like him, has a forearm ending just past the elbow joint.

Westbrook's 3-D printer uses PLA -- an acronym for polylactic acid -- plastic. As Westbrook happened to discover in September, the coffee cups at the high school's coffee shop were made from No. 7 PLA plastic.

He began a schoolwide cup collection at the beginning of October. Two months later, he has gathered more than enough cups to create the prosthetic. The project will be completed for his senior seminar, a New Albany High School graduation requirement in which students research an idea and create a product or complete a project; they must document 80 hours of work to graduate.

The endeavor is another step in Westbrook's goal of making 3-D printed prosthetics for others to avoid the high costs of traditional prosthetics. He said a traditional prosthetic arm would cost $40,000 to $50,000.

"When Maddie outgrows her arm, it's going to be made out of plastic," Westbrook said. "And I'm going to be able to recycle that and make her a new one, and it's going to cost nothing."

The future is now

At 17, Westbrook is working in a field full of possibility.

3-D printing's role in the prosthetics industry will expand as the materials evolve, according to Tim Riedlinger, a certified prosthetist and orthotist with Optimus Prosthetics' Columbus office.

The current technology of 3-D printing cannot be used for lower-extremity prosthetics because the material can't support the weight, Riedlinger said.

However, 3-D-printed hands could improve cost-effective research and design, he said.

"If we jump in now, we can grow with it," Riedlinger said.

However, he said, the 3-D printed prosthetics are not a replacement for traditional models. Although 3-D printed models offer some limited function, traditional models use surface electrodes on the skin to enable patients to contract muscles in their arms to move fingers and thumbs on the prosthetics.

Still, if a 3-D prosthetic helps a patient to start using a prosthetic, and perhaps a more traditional one, then the result is positive, Riedlinger said.

"I think it's an exciting, growing sector," he said.

For his prosthetic arms, Westbrook uses open-source designs he found online at enablingthefuture.org, a website for the Enable nonprofit organization that provides plans for printing prosthetics.

Website creator Jen Owens described the site as a repository for tutorials and files for those interested in creating their own 3-D printed prosthetics.

Ten designs on the website have been tested and used, Owens said. For the most part, the designs the Enable organization's community has come up with require the user to have wrist or elbow function, she said. Users can bend their wrist or elbow to cause tension lines to move a prosthetic hand's fingers and thumb.

Now, she said, students and designers are experimenting with myo-electric designs that would enable muscle control of the prosthetics. Designers also are designing basic tools for people that still have their hands but have lost function of them.

Thousands of people, especially outside the U.S., have no access to health care or prosthetics, Owens said. Enable seeks to create prosthetic designs for as little cost as possible by using easily sourced materials, she said.

Westbrook said he never used a prosthetic before making his own. Maddie, his first-grade friend and the future recipient of her own 3-D printed prosthetic, also has never used one.

Opening a door

Jennifer Horvath described her 7-year-old daughter as invincible and independent.

Horvath said Maddie was born with a truncated left forearm that didn't develop. After she gave birth to Maddie, she said she reached out to mothers of children with similar conditions.

"We wanted our kids to be exposed to kids that are similar to them," she said.

The mothers' group formed the Nub Club, which was how Westbrook met Maddie.

Westbrook's device would be her daughter's first prosthetic, Horvath said, and she hopes it could help Maddie better perform some activities she finds challenging, such as riding a bike without training wheels or tying her shoe laces.

"We just want to open this door and see what happens," Horvath said.

Westbrook said Maddie's prosthetic arm would be panda-themed at her request. The arm will require about 200 plastic cups, he said, well below the estimated 1,200 cups he hopes to collect.

By using a filament extruder -- a device that turns pieces of plastic into spools of filament -- he purchased at a reduced rate, Westbrook will be able to use the plastic from the cups with his 3-D printer he purchased with funding from a Kickstarter campaign.

He said the use of the cups falls in line with the mission of the Form5 Prosthetics organization he started at age 15: to create environmentally friendly, 3-D printed prosthetics from recycled materials.

Westbrook said he hopes to have a prosthetic arm for Maddie by February.

One of a kind

Westbrook's senior-seminar project is one of a kind, said New Albany High School principal Dwight Carter, who described Westbrook as forward-thinking and innovative.

Anne Stidham, Westbrook's adviser for his senior-seminar project, said Westbrook has overcome many obstacles as he's developed his ideas.

"He's figuring out how to do the hard things," she said. "What he's doing is just so far beyond high school."

Meanwhile, Westbrook is thinking ahead. He said he already is anticipating his next project: a modified prosthetic mounted on bike handlebars for a friend in Dayton.

ssole@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekSarah