The latest development in prosthetic limbs didn?t begin in a hospital or a university lab. Instead, it started with a runaway table saw, a special effects artist and a 5-year-old.
When carpenter Richard Van As lost control of his table saw, it cost him two of the fingers on his right hand. As he recuperated, he searched for a replacement that would allow him to get back to work, only to discover that prosthetic fingers cost up to $10,000 per finger, an unaffordable amount for the Johannesburg, South Africa carpenter. Faced with the prohibitive cost of existing options, Van As crafted his own replacement finger from odds and ends around his shop. It worked ? barely ? and he continued searching for an affordable alternative.
Then he saw a video featuring Ivan Owen, a Bellingham, Wash., special effects artist who specializes in hands. In the video, Owen demonstrated a recent creation: a large puppet hand that used steel cables as tendons, allowing him to move the hand?s digits with ease. Van As contacted Owen immediately.
Over the following months, Van As and Owen collaborated on possible designs for prosthetic fingers, trading ideas and fabricating prototypes. Soon thereafter, Owen flew to South Africa to visit Van As in person. While the two were hard at work, they received a call that would alter the course of their mission entirely.
It came from the mother of 5-year-old Liam Dippenaar. Liam suffers from Amniotic Band Syndrome, a condition causing him to be born without fingers on his right hand. Like Van As, Liam?s parents found the cost of prosthetics prohibitive, especially since he would outgrow them almost immediately. His mother had heard of their work, and hoped they might be able to help her son.
Days later, the pair fitted Liam with his first prosthetic hand. It was a crude thing, milled from aluminum, but it worked. Its fingers clenched and released with the motion of his wrist. Describing Liam?s first experiment with his new hand, Owen told NPR: ?You could see the light bulbs go off and he looked up and said, ?It copies me.? It was really an incredible moment.?
That moment made the pair consider the impact that an affordable prosthetic hand could have on the lives of thousands of people around the world. But the production process was still too difficult, too unrefined. That?s when Owen hit upon the idea of using 3D printing.
Van As and Owen contacted MakerBot, a Brooklyn-based manufacturer of 3D printers. Upon learning about the pair?s mission, MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis promptly donated two MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printers, sending one to Washingtonand the other to South Africa.
The MakerBots enabled the duo to decrease production time for their prototypes from weeks to less than half an hour. ?The impact that utilizing the MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer had was incredible,? Owen recently told Space Daily. ?It dramatically increased the speed at which we could prototype and try out ideas. It gave us the ability to both hold physical copies of the exact same thing, even though we were separated by 10,000 miles.?
With the MakerBots, Van As and Owen were able to create an inexpensive and accessible alternative to existing prosthetics. They dubbed the product ?Robohand.?
Functionally, the 3D-printed Robohand is similar to the version originally given to Liam Dippenaar. What?s different ? even revolutionary ? is the Robohand?s cost. With Van As and Owen?s designs and access to a 3D printer, a fully functioning Robohand can be produced for around $150.
This unprecedented level of affordability and accessibility are key tenets of the duo?s mission. They?ve published their designs ? completely free and without any patent restrictions ? on MakerBot?s Thingiverse, an online hub for 3D printing enthusiasts, where its been downloaded more than 3,500 times in just a few months. Van As himself has fitted more than 100 children with Robohands. None of them were asked to pay, even for materials.
Robohand isn?t the only prosthetic being developed with 3D printing technology. Artificial limbs, replacement craniums, and 3D-printed faces have made an appearance in the last year alone. Even a duck got a 3D-printed foot.
This marriage of open source design and 3D printing points to a brighter future for those in need of prosthetic limbs. Van As and Owen are eager to see their designs shared, modified, and improved upon by users around the world. Soon, those in need may be able to design and produce their own prosthetics without leaving their living rooms.