by Gene Turnbow

Science isn’t lending a hand – it’s giving them away.

“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts,
the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me…
Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.” – Shel Silverstein

3D printing is still at the hobbyist and curiosity stage for the most part.  It’s used in product development and package design, for creating maquettes of animated characters for movies or games, and by hobbyists all over the world to make everything from art pieces to camera mounts, machine parts to jewelry findings.  Its strength is that it you can design and create solid objects of intricate design that will be used precisely once.  That’s why 3D printing was exactly the technology Richard Van As of South Africa, and Ivan Owen of Washington State, USA were looking for.  The two men share a common goal: to develop and share an accessible prosthesis design with finger amputees all over the world.

In May of 2011, Richard lost four fingers from his right hand in a woodworking accident. On the very same day, he decided that he would develop a mechanical replacement to restore some of the functionality that he lost.  Despite being told that the challenge would likely be beyond his skills and resources, he kept thinking about how it might work.  That December, after seeing a video of a mechanical hand prop on YouTube, Richard emailed Ivan and invited him to work together on the design. They have been tinkering, brain storming and building ever since.

Their efforts have been rewarded by the transformation of two young lives so far.  Five year old Liam Herman of South Africa, had been born with Amniotic Band Syndrome, leaving him with no fingers on his right hand. He’d already had an operation to deepen the space in the web between where his thumb and forefinger would have been, but it hadn’t helped much.  Then his mother found Richard Van As  and his Facebook page called Robohand.  Own and As collaborated over a planet’s diameter distance and fine tuned the design for a 3D printed mechanical hand, designed and printed on a Makerbot 3D printer.  At no cost to his parents, Liam now has fingers on his right hand, and can pick up objects as small as coins and play ball with his brothers where before he could only sit and watch.

And three weeks ago, a charming little girl named Eden, also born without fingers on her right hand, grasped and picked up a ball with that hand for the first time in her life.

The hand has no batteries, nor cables leading to a backpack.  It’s purely mechanical in operation, and it’s simple for the wearer to use.

This team of two determined individuals is gaining speed. With the support of donations from people who believe in their shared vision, the possibility of their larger dream becoming a reality grows stronger each day. With the continued support of their families, friends and the global community, these two men from opposite sides of the planet will embark on the next stage of this incredible journey – sharing the technology and knowledge they have developed with as many people as possible.  The job won’t be easy – every person’s hand is different, but the team hopes to make the mechanical hands reconfigurable while using the largest number of common parts as possible.

As and Owen have open-sourced the design for the prosthetic hands, making it possible for others around the world to join them in their work.  The 3D printing technology makes this possible and practical – with it, physical objects can be designed and transmitted around the world via the internet and printed out on demand, using relatively inexpensive equipment.

There is a lot of work ahead, but Rich and Ivan look forward to the challenges and outcomes that the future holds.  This is science fiction technology brought to life, and being put to the best possible use.

If you want to donate to the Robothand project, you can.  Here’s the link for making your own donation to support their worthy efforts.  They’re using crowd sourced funding on Fundly to get things going.