3D Printing in Animatronics: Easton LaChappelle at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

Thank you. When I was younger, I always took apart everything I got. Just a few years ago, I finally learned how to put everything back together, and everything took off from there. When I was 14, I came up with this idea, it was to create a robotic hand, controlled by a wireless control glove. Now, I was 14, this was a pretty far-fetched idea for me. It was one of the most practical ideas I’ve had so far, but I had no idea how to make this into reality.

I turned to the Internet, and I instantly found a lot of sites that really promoted learning and made learning fun and easy. These site include SparkFun, Instructables, Hackaday just to name a few. From there, I started actually building. As you can see, I started using electrical tubing, a lot of electric tape, and LEGOs as supports. That’s just what I had of laying around, and I want to make use of it. I like to work fast, and this is the result of it.

So throughout learning, it was a challenge. I live in a small town in Colorado so I’m very limited. I don’t have big universities to go into and ask questions. I had the Internet and my bedroom to make everything out. For example, for the flex sensors on the control glove.

I first learned how to wire those up to a micro controller. Then write code for them and get all the raw signal values from those. Convert that into motor signals, and then actually move something with that. Then add it at wireless radios and make everything work in unison. If you times that by five, you get individual finger control of a whole hand.

Now, I didn’t stop there. I wanted to make something bigger, better, and more functional. I started learning modeling software, and I wanted to get this made physically. I was going to go at CNC milling or something like that, and just the cost was outrageous. So there was this new, evolving technology that started coming into play which was 3D printing.

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I sent this to a few companies, and I was getting quotes upwards of 500 dollars just to print the hand. This was the point where I almost quit, I didn’t have 500 dollars to put into something that could just fail. So I really looked around and tried to use my resources as much as possible. I had a friend that lived in New York, and he worked at a 3D printing company, and he had a printer of his own, and he threw it on one night, and I had to pay for shipping. So this is really the spark of this.

You know, contributing and making everything possible I wanted to increase functionality, and with that you need stronger motors, and better electronics, and everything. I was 16 at the time. I didn’t have a whole lot of money to put into this. I pretty much had the money from working over the summer, and so I had to find compromises between different technologies, different motors, and incorporate it all into one system.

So I needed an extremely high torque motor with a really precise feedback system, and that alone already sounds expensive. What I ended up doing was I used a DC motor with a gearbox, a really beefy gearbox to really get the maximum torque out of a simple motor, and I put a potentiometer at the end of the shaft. A potentiometer is what’s found in light dimmers. So again, keeping the cost extremely low and increasing functionality. So in the end, I built this robotic arm up to the shoulder, which was extremely strong.

It could toss balls to you, it could shake your hand, it could pretty much do anything a human could if you programmed it correctly. From there, I entered this into the Science Fair in Colorado, and at the state science fair, I kind of had an aha-moment. This seven-year-old girl came up to me, and she had a prosthetic limb from the elbow to the fingertip; one motion and one sensor. I started talking to her parents more about it, and just that alone was 80,000 dollars which is a lot of money for anyone. And I could see the distress, talking to her parents, because that is a lot of money, and the thing was that she was 7, so she’d probably need about two or three of those in her lifetime.

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And that was the aha-moment for me. I could take what I was are you doing, transfer that directly into prosthetics, add a control system, and it could have the potential to save, to make life that much more enjoyable for amputees and other already prosthetic users. There are other prosthetics in the market. The main control system for the newer advanced ones are all neural implants, which is an open spinal surgery, which is extremely dangerous. It’s an open spinal surgery, where they implant sensors enter your spinal cord that pick up your neurons. That’s dangerous and also costs a lot of money; I don’t have money to do that so I wanted to find a compromise.

I started looking around. I wanted to keep everything external. I wanted to get rid of all the surgeries, and just have something simple that you could put on every day, take off whenever you need to; concealed within something that’s easy. This is the EEG headset. This reads about 10 different channels of your brain, and with this, you can do a lot. This is all wireless, it actually uses Bluetooth. So this is the newer arm that this actually controls, and although it’s only sending data a few inches, that adds to the prosthetic, that eliminates the wires going from your head to the arm, and for prosthetic users, that’s a big psychological aspect to it all.

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