Three graduate students at UCLA’s school of Architecture & Urban Design have created a 3-D printed wrist splint that they hope could one day provide underdeveloped regions with quick and effective medical relief. The team’s prototype is gorgeous—an intricate exoskeleton designed around the actual structure of bone to provide support exactly where injured wrists most need it.

Nicholas Solakian, Peter Nguyen, and Derek Buell were in part inspired by a disaster relief doctor who works on the Thailand-Burma border. Wrist and joint injuries, the doctor explained to the team, are prevalent and debilitating in underdeveloped or disaster-stricken areas. The current aid for such injuries typically involves manufacturing mediocre splints in first-world countries, then coordinating and funding their packaging, shipping, and distribution. In extremely remote areas, the process gets even hairier. The students realized that 3-D printing could make custom-fitted splints cheap, strong, and readily available.

3-D Printed Splints (Close-up)

Selective laser sintering allows for remarkable intricacy.

“The structure itself changes in density so that areas further away from the break requiring less structural rigidity become more porous and flexible making the entire splint more breathable,” Nguyen explains. A method of 3-D printing called selective laser sintering (SLS) allows the splints to be rigid, lightweight, and intricate. Also, with a manipulatable CAD file and a 3-D scanner, the splints could be fine-tuned on a case-by-case basis for exact fitting and appropriate rigidity.

Unfortunately, impoverished areas may not get these splints any time soon: SLS machines are large, expensive, and require careful maintenance. Still, if the splints show promise in both ease of production and, more importantly, therapeutic effectiveness, the team will have made a significant step towards their original goal: relief from debilitating injuries in underdeveloped regions of the world. Barring significant technological advances that enable affordable and portable SLS machines, though, it’s hard to fathom actual implementation for that cause. To overcome this obstacle, the researchers are working with Direct Relief International and investigating alternative manufacturing methods that use less expensive machines.

See a video interview from Solid Concepts with the students below: