Richard Van As lost two fingers in a horrific carpentry accident. Like many disabled people, he had to find a prothetic hand to allow him to continue living a normal life. Finding existing prothetics too expensive, he began to look for a DIY solution. Last year, he came across Ivan Owen and his own work on prosthetics. Working together, they developed an inexpensive solution, called the Robohand, all for $150, in spite of the 20,000 kilometer gap between South Africa and the USA.
Via email and a lot of skype chats, they began to share ideas, experiences and eventually CAD models. Prototypes had to be physically shipped back and forth. Van As would send casts of his hand and Owen would return prototypes of the prothetic hand for testing. And eventually, they managed to create a working design that has made it possible for Van As to pick up balls, cups and even type.
Late last year they were contacted by Yolandi Dippenaar. Her 5 year-old child Liam suffers from Amniotic Band Syndrome, an uncommon birth defect that prevents the formation of full fingers. Having heard about their work, Yolandi asked the two to make a version for her son. By coincidence, Owen was on his way to South Africa to meet Van As for the first time – they built a copy of the hand in 3 ½ days for Liam. Within 3 days of the hand being fitted, Liam was picking up coins and rubber balls with little effort.
Makerbot picked up the story and donated two Replicator 2’s to their project, jump-starting their engineering and design process. "There have been times Rich and I have been awake at the same time," Owen said, "and I e-mail him a file, and he prints it out, and can send me feedback. And then within 15 to 20 minutes, I can send him a modified version. It's made it a lot more like working right next to each other. Turnaround has gone from two weeks to two minutes."
Stories like this are absolutely fantastic. Just like 3D Printing is making prototyping quicker, we’re all about making process quick as well. Is the Robohand open source? You betcha. From the beginning, Owen and Van As have been uploading files for all to see, redesign or share. Although exceedingly simple in comparison to others today, it is a remarkable story demonstrating that losing a limb may be a disability, but distance is no longer a hindrance.