CLEVELAND (AP) — It was the simple things they missed.
Gardening. Turning the pages of a book. Using an electric razor.
Veterans, many of them requiring wheelchairs, told Cuyahoga Community College students about their longings as they all gathered not too long ago in a room at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center.
The Tri-C students were studying how to use 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, to make affordable, assistive devices that could help veterans and others reclaim some of the simple things in life.
Patient Richard Tuttle just wanted to garden again.
“Before my injury, I was quite the gardener,” he said. “I raised my own green beans — canned them. Raised tomatoes — canned them. Now, it is a different story from a year ago.”
It was then that Tuttle was paralyzed after falling 14-feet while deconstructing an old barn.
His story resonated with student Christopher Wiersma, who has had four back surgeries.
“When I began to get better, the first thing that I could really do was gardening,” he said. “It could have been just sitting in the dirt pulling weeds. Just doing it made me feel good. So, being able to give that to somebody else is important.”
A few days later, the students were back in class going over their notes and deciding what projects they would tackle.
Wiersma wanted Mr. Tuttle, as he called him, to till the soil again. He would design the Garden Buddy, a set of assistive tools.
Mark Lettieri remembered the joyous expressions when some veterans spoke of their love of fishing. He would design the Fisherman’s Gauntlet for those without strength or motor control to cast a fishing line.
Tyler Tomazic and Eric Szabo sought to answer some veterans’ yearning to thumb through the pages of a book again. Tomazic would design the Easy Easel to hold a book. Szabo would design the UFO Page Turner for books and touchscreens. (Its semicircle design resembles a flying saucer.)
“It’s hard to image a point in my life where I suddenly couldn’t turn the pages in a book,” he said. “There is so much that we take for granted that they just want to have back in their everyday lives. We want to give that back to them.”
Instructor Maciej G. Zborowski liked that his students were applying the 3D printing curriculum to the plight of veterans. That is why he and Alethea V. Ganaway, Tri-C’s additive manufacturing program manager, came up with the Capstone Project by partnering with the VA. These students, from the summer 2017 class, were the second group to work with veterans.
“It is one thing to assign a project that is just a figment of my imagination, but I figured that it would be more impactful to test the students using problems that actually existed out in the real world,” he said.
Additive manufacturing is a growing field, especially in the medical industry, and working with veterans offers practical experience in the one-year certificate 3D Digital Design and Manufacturing Technology program. Ganaway said the program is designed so that graduates could either work right away or pursue an associate’s or higher degree.
Zborowski said 3D printing makes it easy to customize assistive devices, and for less money than with traditional manufacturing methods.
Students Khushbu Patel and Jarrod Koch listened as the veterans told of their frustration with assistive devices for eating utensils. There were good ones, but they usually cost a few hundred dollars. Patel set out to design an effective, inexpensive device.
Koch listened with empathy as the veterans spoke. Only a few years earlier, after being paralyzed in an accident, using such awkward devices annoyed him. He set out to design Add-It Hands, an assistive device that could be modified for a variety of activities from eating to shaving.
“I remember not being able to feed myself that well,” he said. “Everything they gave me only frustrated me further. You had to shovel food into your mouth like you were a toddler.”
The students spent the next few months working on their projects in the 3D lab at Tri-C’s Metro Campus. They worked individually and also collaborated. For example, Szabo’s page turner was incorporated into the Easy Easel and Garden Buddy.
The journey from idea to a device included sketches, cardboard models and digital models that were then programmed into a 3D printer. The printer consecutively adds layers of plastic, or other material, to construct an object from the digital image. It is not uncommon for objects to print for 20 hours.
Wiersma arrived at the lab one morning expecting to see a cylinder structure he had left to print overnight. Instead, he found something that resembled angel hair spaghetti. The printer had malfunctioned.
“My stomach kind of dropped to my feet a bit,” he said.
Luckily, there was still time to redo the 13-hour print before the class would meet again with the veterans. Wiersma didn’t want to disappoint “Mr. Tuttle,” who had been his motivation.
In early August, the students were back at the VA meeting with the veterans to reveal their devices. The students had planned on making PowerPoint presentations, but the equipment wasn’t available.
Koch had counted on showing the slide of an x-ray of his severely injured spine, which had once confined him to a wheelchair. The veterans needed neither slide nor explanation of medical terms. They could relate.
“The doctors took metal and Tinkertoyed me together from my third vertebra to my sixth,” he later said. “They removed most of my fourth and fifth vertebrae because I shattered them. They didn’t expect me to move anything above my shoulders.”
When Koch demonstrated how his device could be used with an electric razor, veteran Leonard Powell enthusiastically responded.
“I know I need a shave bad,” he said. “I would never let my beard get this bad if I were able to do it myself.”
Wiersma acknowledged Tuttle during his presentation.
“I was thinking about you when I did this because you were talking about how you liked to garden, and you missed it,’” he said.
Some of the students left their devices for veterans to beta test.
“Work them until they fail,” said Zborowski, the instructor. “We’ll get the feedback back to these guys, so that they can improve them.”
A few days later, Tuttle was in a VA garden using the Garden Buddy to work the beds.
“That is what I used to do,” he said. “It is so enjoyable, so fulfilling.”
Tuttle also got to use the UFO Page Turner Szabo designed.
The veterans suggested that Wiersma could improve the Garden Buddy by working on its wrist movement. The Page Turner worked well, but was less reliable on touchscreens, one of its stated functions. Patient Powell was released before being able to test the Add-It Hands for shaving.
Even though the feedback came after the students completed the class, Szabo and Wiersma are open to working with the veterans again to perfect their devices. So is Koch, who still wants his device tested.
“It really was life-changing to speak with these veterans,” Szabo said. “They offer a unique perspective.”
And Tuttle said he is willing to work with the students because their mission is improving lives.
“I thought I had lost everything,” he said. “I am learning through these (students) that is not the case.”