3D printers have a fantastic potential. From the printer’s molten plastic extruder you can produce a gun as happened in the United States, or a low cost prosthesis such as that developed by the Waag Society in the Netherlands. Fortunately, the story of Richard Van As, master carpenter in Johannesburg, South Africa, has something in common with the latter.
Van As lost four fingers of his right hand in an accident at work. He did not want to admit defeat and decided to go back to work and build a prosthesis with his workshop tools. The carpenter then started communicating with Ivan Owen, an American designer that specialised in artificial limbs. So that’s how the ROBOHAND project started: by two people separated by an ocean. Then came 3D printing.
At the start of 2013, the manufacturer of 3D printers MakerBot decided to support the two makers by giving each of them a Replicator 2. The idea was to speed up the prototyping phase and see their work completed on Thingiverse. So that was it: Owen designed the prosthesis using free software OpenSCAD and Van As made the first prototypes in about twenty minutes.
Trial after trial, the two makers were able to get what they wanted. With ROBOHAND, Van As could print his four plastic fingers, saving tens of thousands of dollars on the market price of the prostheses. At that point, they had an idea.
Van As and Owen decided to make 3D printers and the ability to design available to the community. Their story has already been around the world on the Web: some families write to them saying they need help.
In South Africa, as in the rest of the world, many children are born with amniotic band syndrome, a condition that prevents the development of the limbs during gestation. Without fingers from birth, children learn how to use a prosthesis from an early age. But children grow really fast and they need a new prosthesis every six months. An expense often unaffordable for their families.
The two makers got busy and modified the design to build an entire hand for Liam, a child born in Johannesburg without fingers on his right hand. The result is a set for a prosthetic hand freely downloadable on Thingiverse that anyone can make with a 3D printer. The cost of the prosthesis, materials included, is approximately $ 150. It works, even if there is an ocean between who built and who uses it.