UVU Mechanical Engineering Student Prints 3D Hands for Children in Need

Matt Thomas, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering at UVU, is one of those exceptional individuals who is always serving others.


Matt Thomas, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering at Utah Valley University (UVU), is one of those exceptional individuals who is always serving others. His last service project was printing prosthetic hands on a 3D printer for underprivileged children in the Philippines and South America.

Thomas’ venture into 3D printing began in March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors and nurses everywhere were in desperate need of 3D-printed respirators with reusable filters. Being mechanically inclined, Thomas purchased materials and taught himself how to use the printer.

He organized a group of 3D printing enthusiasts to create the respirators and filters. Some had no experience requiring Thomas to spend many hours creating digital tutorials. In addition, he produced several training videos on viruses, masks, and materials.

“Our group printed roughly two million devices for doctors and nurses in Utah, New York and even Israel,” said Thomas. “But I wanted to help in other ways. So, I started doing 3D printing research, and I thought, what about kids who don't have hands?”

While researching, he learned about a non-profit organization called Enabling the Future, (ETF) whose grassroots mission is to recruit volunteers globally to print free 3D hands, arms, fingers who have lost them because of war, disease, or natural disaster.

Partnering with ETF, Thomas has been able to print and assemble 14 hands for underprivileged children in the Philippines and South America. “One 3D prosthetic hand, printed and assembled, costs less than $10,” he said, “But the hand means the world to the person who receives it.”

EFT had given Thomas printing files, but he found them cumbersome with a long processing time. Ever the engineer, he redesigned and remixed the files, which made printing and processing faster and easier, ultimately sharing the design with EFT.

“Seeing children pick up a piece of sidewalk chalk, or pick up a water bottle, or balance on a bike, when they couldn’t do it before, makes it worth the hard work,” said Thomas. “The cherry on top is seeing what the mechanical hand does for them.”

His UVU academic advisor was impressed with his efforts and suggested that he turn his work with EFT into an internship for credit. Part of his internship included conducting a study to determine if the parts and materials could be sanitized, used for food containers, and if the pieces were viable in the medical field. Working with EFT, he grew ten types of bacteria, cultured them, and imaged the parts under the electron microscope. “Being able to add the microbiology portion to my mechanical engineering study has been beneficial to me and the department,” he said. “I have taken classes in anatomy, phlebotomy, microbiology, as well as medical classes. I love to learn and connect the dots.”

All was going well with school and Thomas’ service projects when tragedy struck — his mother passed away from COVID vaccine complications on Mother’s Day in 2021 — she was his rock and foundation.

He explained that his mother worked for years as a head nurse at the University of Utah hospital, Intensive Care Unit, and had battled Type 1 diabetes since her mid-teens. Many days her diabetes made her sick at work. “I watched her battle the diabetes every day as she saved young lives at Primary Children's Hospital. She was there and just saving lives,” he said. She was vaccinated for COVID-19, and unfortunately, the vaccine jump-started her immune response, which caused a heart attack that took her life.

Thomas’ mother lived by a quote that she often repeated to him, “You’ll never regret being kind.” “I thought it was just a perfect example of her,” he said. “I have always tried to live by the quote. I’m not perfect at it, but I’m getting there. She was always there for me and guiding me.”

His mother’s quote became Thomas’ motto for service.