Beattie student creates an animatronic hand

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Ever since he began building a prosthetic hand with the 3-D printers in the robotics program at A.W. Beattie Career Center in McCandless, Alex Burns, 18, has gotten a grasp on what kind of career he wants to pursue.

Interested in becoming a mechanical or electrical engineer, he is starting with a project that he believes could help amputees and could have industrial and military applications.

“I thought that if we could do this at a cheap price, prosthetics could easily be available to anyone,” said the Shaler Area High School senior. “They make medical devices so expensive, but with the 3-D printers, they don’t have to be.”

So far, he’s created two plastic left hands using a $16,000 3-D printer and a $2,000 Maker Bot.

“The first one we built didn’t work, but it served as a prototype for the second one,” he said.

Wearing a glove with sensors on his right hand, Alex can manipulate the yellow plastic prototype on his left hand so that it mimics his movements. Like a marionette, the animatronic hand uses wires that are attached to motors to move the fingers independently.

The basic design for the hand was pulled from an open-source website called

“We have some basic parts, but most everything has been improvised,” Alex said, noting that such websites encourage the use of their un-patented designs as a learning tool.

He said it took about 40 hours to print the components of the hand with AVS plastic, which include four fingers and an opposing thumb that have the ability to close around an angular palm.

Fellow robotics student Thomas Kornish, a junior at Hampton High School, assisted Alex with programming the hand.

“Tom wrote the code — the ‘brain’ — to teach the hand what it needs to know from the input on the glove,” Alex said. “When I realized how easy this was to build, in a factory, it would be relatively inexpensive. I could see these hands selling for $1,000, compared to the usual cost of at least $10,000.”

Alex said with the push of a button, the hand detects every movement the glove makes. His goal is to eventually create an entire working forearm.

"I hope that making this hand brings a lot more opportunities for me in the future,” he said.

The project has been under the watchful eye of robotics instructor Randy Bish, who has seen many of his students enter advanced manufacturing technology fields.

“One of my former students has become a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University and he’s now working on the lunar robot,” Mr. Bish said. “Another one builds telescopes for the University of North Carolina. Students in the robotics program go on to work in prestigious places.”

Students from nine North school districts can enroll in the program and earn as many as 17 credits at California University of Pennsylvania. Mr. Bish said the half-day program requires good math and science skills and is equivalent to Advanced Placement high school classes.

In addition to Alex’s animatronic hand, the robotics students are building their robot for the annual FIRST Robotics competition, which involves a skills competition among student-made robots from schools in the region.

Students interested in the robotics program can get more information at Beattie’s spring open house from 6 to 9 p.m. March 11.

Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer:

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