HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – Two-year-old Huntsville toddler Kate Berkholtz was born missing four finger on her left hand. Watch the tot play on any given day and it’s clear the absent digits don’t faze her much.
The day we met the energetic blonde toddler she was way too preoccupied keeping up with her little brother while bouncing on the padded floor at south Huntsville's Little Gym. But Kate's left hand is what brought minds together at the play place for some pretty advanced experimentation.
The gym's owner, Angel Hundley, is married to a man with a high-tech Huntsville company whose slogan is, "We're helping to engineer the future." The engineers at Zero Point Frontiers usually work in the realm of air-launched rockets, in-space architecture tools, consulting for NASA, Virgin Galactic and other commercial entities. But most recently they purchased a 3D printer.
After tooling with the technology for a while Zero Point intern Shawn Betts did a company-wide presentation on the printer. He described how the machines build up layers of plastic following a computer design until a real object is formed: a bolt, a screw, maybe even a synthetic body part.
Betts say he made a mention of South African carpenter Richard Van As and special effects artist and puppeteer Ivan Owen of Bellingham, Washington. The duo teamed up in 2012 to make aluminum fingers for Van As after he lost two fingers and damaged two more in a shop accident.
When Zero Point President Jason Hundley's wife Angel heard the presentation a light bulb went off. She thought of her Little Gym student Kate. The rest, as they say, is history.
The two-year-old doesn't need a prosthesis for her left hand that's missing four fingers. She can swing, scamper, saché and play just like any other toddler. But now she's become the muse for an emerging technology.
"When Kate was first born and we realized she was missing her fingers," recalls dad Michael Berkholtz, "we went to a lot of other places like Baltimore, Philadelphia and Atlanta to kind of find out what type of options we had."
But the Berkholtz family says they didn't want to go the surgical route. Dad Michael says he never would have imagined a bio-plastic made from corn called Polylactic acid would be a viable option for his little girl to potentially have a fully-fuctioning hand.
"What's exciting about this is if you can get one design and it works really well then potentially there are other people out there who may have other ideas who could take what we've seen on Kate and make that a whole new design," Berkholtz says.
The difficulty with fitting a faux hand on a toddler comes in the simple fact that kids grow - constantly. But the scaleability and affordability of Zero Point's printing approach addresses that dilemma says Shawn Betts.
"The cost of one of these hands is under $5," he says, "and we can do a couple of designs by changing little parts that cost 50 cents or less."
Kate has had several fitting now. Betts and Zero Point engineer Megan Beattie put Velcro bands around Kate's arm then use a model to show how bending the wrist will tighten the fishing line "tendons" and curl the fingers in a gripping motion.
But there are still several prototypes to come, Betts says. The team tried guitar string in place of fishing line only to later scrap the idea. The tendons don't work smoothly under Kate's tiny arm power and Kate doesn't yet have the wrist control that Betts and Beattie want.
But it's not a disappointment or a failure. After all, when the latest model of the experimental hand comes off, the golden-locked Kate goes right back to her frolicking. The next hand will, of course, be better and following each fitting everyone involved continues to keep their focus on the possibilities.
"This technology is just amazing," Betts smiles.
Kate's dad Michael says he sees the good in the endeavor not only for his daughter but potentially for posterity.
"You know it's really cool to get in on the front end of this and try to eventually help other who have more challenges than Kate does."