Do you remember when 3D-printing and robotic limbs only existed in sci-fi films? Both concepts are every-day life for Richard Van As, a South Africa-based woodworker, and Ivan Owen, a Seattle-based prop designer. The duo has designed a low-cost Robohand that can be produced by simply 3D-printing it at home.
The idea hit Richard Van As immediately after he lost four of his fingers in an accident in 2011. He contacted Ivan Owen through the internet, and the team has been working on the concept ever since. MakerBot, a 3D printer company, donated a Replicator 2 Desktop 3D printer to both partners, which, according to Van As, “dramatically increased the speed in which we could prototype and try out ideas. It gave us the ability to both hold a physical copy of the exact same thing even though we were separated by ten thousand miles.”
In addition to production speed, the main benefit of using a 3D-printer is that it significantly reduces costs. Normally, without 3D-printing, one custom-made prosthetic finger can cost up to $10,000. By using a 3D-printer Van As and Owen are able to produce full prosthetic hands with as little as a total cost of $150.
When Van As originally set to produce a Robohand he was mainly thinking of helping himself but soon realised the potential for helping others after being contacted by Yolandi Dippenaar, mother of Liam, a boy with an Amniotic hand syndrome. Amniotic band syndrome is a condition in babies that results in children being born without one or more fingers. It is estimated to affect 1 in 1200 live births.
Low-cost 3D-printer technology is especially effective in children because they can require several prostheses as they grow and age. Van As describes the process by saying, “as he [Liam] grows, we just scale the hand and make him another one, and the hardware just gets put onto the new hand… When you’re making these hands and you make a mistake, you break something or drill it wrong, you just go in, set up the machine, and print out a whole new set of parts.”
What’s even better is that the entire project is open source. This means that all the design files are freely downloadable from the internet. All you have to do is get access to a 3D printer, print out the hand, and put it together. Van As and Owen suggest that anyone printing a hand will get a hold of an occupational therapist, but with the instructions provided it is also possible to produce a hand entirely independently.
Read more about the Robohand project here.