3-D printing of prostheses

Daniel Omar, standing outside a hospital in Gidel, Sudan, wears a prosthetic arm made with a 3-D printer supplied by Not Impossible, a Venice group that helps people overcome physical limitations through technology. (Timoteo Freccia / Not Impossible)

Mick Ebeling arrived in Sudan with little more than a toolbox, rolls of plastic and two microwave-size 3-D printers.

He had endured a weeklong journey from Los Angeles, with stops in London, Johannesburg and Nairobi before reaching Juba, the capital of South Sudan. From there, he flew on a small twin-engine plane to Yida, where at a refugee camp he found Daniel Omar.

Ebeling had read a magazine article a few months earlier about the 16-year-old, whose hands and forearms had been blown off two years ago during an airstrike launched by the Sudanese government. The boy's plight resonated with Ebeling, who tracked down the remote hospital where Daniel had received treatment. Over Skype, Ebeling told Daniel's doctor: I think I can help.

After meeting in Yida, Ebeling and Daniel caught an 11-hour ride in the back of a Land Cruiser to Gidel, Sudan, a volatile region in the Nuba Mountains where Daniel's doctor tends to amputees and other victims of the civil war plaguing the country.

In a small tin shed, Ebeling connected a 3-D printer to a laptop. The printer began melting plastic to form three-dimensional pieces, which he then joined together like Legos. He worked off a design created by a carpenter friend who, after accidentally severing four fingers with a table saw, had built his own prosthesis.

It took two days for Ebeling to print and construct a skeletal plastic hand bolted to an arm-like cylinder. Nylon cords attached to each plastic finger snaked up the length of the apparatus so that when the wearer flexed his or her elbow, the cords tightened and pulled the fingers into a fist.

Once the prosthetic device was fitted to Daniel's upper arm, the boy was able to wave, toss an object and feed himself with a spoon, major feats for someone who had been forced to rely on others for the most basic everyday tasks.

It was, Ebeling recalled later, "on par with watching my kids being born."

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Ebeling didn't set out to be an inventor.

A Hollywood producer, he works on television shows, commercials and films, most notably executive producing the opening title sequence for the James Bond movie "Quantum of Solace." The 43-year-old graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in political science. He has no medical or engineering background and no formal training in designing or building prosthetic devices.

But today, Ebeling finds himself the unlikely leader of a team dedicated to tackling the physical limitations that arise from conditions such as blindness and paralysis.

The group calls itself Not Impossible. Volunteers work out of a bungalow tucked behind the Venice Beach home that Ebeling shares with his wife and their three boys.

"This is our equivalent of the Hewlett-Packard garage," he says of the light-filled two-room space with mustard-colored walls and wood-beam ceiling. A towering bookshelf brims with books and thick binders. A 3-D printer sits on a shelf in the corner. A large wooden table is covered with prototypes of prostheses and bags of screws. And on a white piece of paper tacked to a wall, someone has scrawled the word "impossible," with a red X slicing through the first two letters.

Ebeling's unexpected foray into making medical devices began in 2007, when he attended a benefit for a graffiti artist who had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. Over time the artist, known as Tempt One, had become trapped in his paralyzed body, unable to speak, gesture or draw.

At first, Ebeling considered donating money for Tempt's healthcare costs. But after meeting with the artist's father and brother over lunch in Los Angeles, he pledged to do more.

He reached out to engineers he met at a design conference, pitching them on the idea of building a low-cost eye-tracking system. The end result: the EyeWriter, a pair of glasses affixed to a Web camera that enables people to draw on a computer with their eye movements.

Using the device, Tempt was able to create graffiti art again.

The EyeWriter was named one of the 50 best inventions of 2010 by Time magazine, and a TED talk that Ebeling gave on the glasses received more than 850,000 views after it was posted on the nonprofit's website. A team from Samsung contacted Ebeling to say it was building its own version based on the EyeWriter's design.

"Thank you for your idea," a Samsung Creativity Lab team member in South Korea wrote in an email to Ebeling. "It inspires us and let us to help people in need."