Project Daniel: 3D Printing Prosthetic Arms for Children in Sudan

Digital DiversityAt age 14, Daniel Omar had both his arms blown off by a bomb dropped on his village, and considered his life not worth living. His story is not untypical. In this installment of Digital Diversity, we look at how the Not Impossible Team – after a trip to Sudan Nuba’s Mountains – set up the what is probably the world’s first 3D-printing prosthetic lab and training facility to build him a new arm.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from featuring the many ways mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Lexi Brown, a member of our Media and Research Team.

By Lexi Brown

The seemingly endless, widespread bombings that come with the conflict in South Kordofan is an everyday occurrence for those living in the Numba mountains. The locals constantly listen out for the distinctive drones in the sky, and when alerted they run to the nearest foxhole, climbing into the dark, deep and narrow holes designed so that villagers can escape the shrapnel from the “barrel bombs” dropped from Antonov aircraft by the Sudan Air Force. People wait silently, holding their breath, waiting for the explosions and the ensuing gunpowder smell. The villagers then creep out slowly to gasp the fresh air, but often find themselves shimmying back down as a new round of bombs are dropped. When it’s all over, the villagers emerge and sweep the village to assess the damage. Family members accounted for? Livestock okay? Houses damaged? Crops destroyed?

While Daniel was attending to his family’s goats one day, there were no foxholes nearby that he could reach in time. He used his initiative and sprinted to the largest tree he could find and wrapped his arms around the trunk. The shrapnel missed his head and body but embedded in his two arms, resulting in the need for a double amputation. Though he survived, he was emotionally devastated and felt a burden to all around him.

When Mick Ebling read about about this boy named Daniel in South Sudan who had lost both his arms in a bomb attack, he decided to do something about it. He assembled a team that included experts in prosthetics, physiology and physical therapy and, most importantly, Richard van As, the guy who invented the Robohand. In a region of the world where amputees number upward of 50,000 it was the story of just one – Daniel Omar – that started a movement.

The Not Impossible team, led by Mick, travelled to Yida – an active war zone – to help not only Daniel, but to train the locals on how they too could create prosthetic limbs for those injured in the bombings. “Normal” hospital prosthetic arms usually cost between $10,000 to $15,000 (and higher), but the one that Mick created cost approximately $100 (not including labour and the cost of the printer).

The core components of a prosthetic arm. Photo courtesy Not Impossible

Because Daniel was a double amputee, he relied hugely on his ‘caretaker’. Daniel’s caretaker was an ~9 year-old boy (he didn’t know exactly how old he was) named Shaki. Shaki had to do everything for Daniel. Feed him, bathe him, everything. Daniel proved reclusive at first, but once the prosthetic was correctly fitted, he not only developed the ability to care for himself but his personality changed as he became more enthusiastic about life.

Daniel practicing by eating spoons of sugar. Photo courtesy Not Impossible

After Daniel had been fitted with his prosthetic, and with the help of Dr. Tom Catena, an American doctor and the sole physician left working in the Nuba Mountains, Mick and the team set about teaching local clinicians and villagers how to assemble 3-D prostheses. By the time the team returned to their homes in the U.S., Mick had an email from Dr. Catena saying the local trainees had successfully printed and fitted another two arms on their own.

Mick Ebeling discussing Project Daniel at the Intel stage at CES 2014. Photo courtesy Not Impossible

“It’s really about the concept of help one, help many” says Ebeling. “If I had read the article and thought, ‘I gotta go help the amputees!’ there’s really no place to start. It’s like Bill Gates trying to fight malaria or Bono fighting poverty. But it became achievable by breaking it down to, and starting with, one individual. ‘I want to help Daniel’ turns into an achievable end goal, one person helping one person.”

Lexi BrownLexi Brown is a media planner at Mindshare UK, specialising in new media and technology for communications. This, with her passion for geography after studying at the University of Bristol, has led her to write for “Digital Diversity” and showcase examples of how technology and new methods of communication are improving the developing world, and helping individuals escape the vicious cycle of poverty. You can follow Lexi on Twitter @lexie_brown

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He shares exciting stories in Digital Diversity about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja



Meet the Author
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.