The craftsman, the prop master, the boy, and the 3D printer

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on May 8, 2013

From The News Desk

3D printers have a long way to go before we'll be fabricating our own clothes, car parts, and assault weapons at home, although one man claims to have printed his own gun. For the most part, though, they've been used primarily by DIYers to create keepsakes and curiosities like this buddha frog, plastic "beer served here" sign, iPhone case, and my personal favorite, a "skull bong w/eyes."

Today, however, 3D Printer company MakerBot released a documentary about a master carpenter from South Africa who collaborated with a Seattle-based theatrical prop designer to create something truly useful: a 3D printed "Robohand," a set of mechanical fingers that enables its user to grasp objects. The first to receive one was Liam, a young boy born without fingers on his right hand. His parents couldn't afford a prosthesis since the boy would outgrow it every few months, but with 3D printing a new "Robohand" can be created cheaply, resized and printed as often as needed.

To see the boy's reaction when he grasps a small ball and talks of playing cricket, well, it's a heartwarming story guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye of the most cynical Silicon Valley citizen.

The documentary chronicles how Richard Van As, a carpenter who had lost four fingers on his right hand, contacted Seattleite Ivan Owen, who had experience creating mechanical prop hands. From there, the two worked together remotely, with Owen providing the designs while Van As attempted to build them in his shop. MakerBot heard about the project and donated to each a MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer. This  enabled Van As and Owen to cheaply build, test, and rebuild prototypes, cutting down the time  from weeks to 20 minutes.

After posting his story on Facebook, Van As began receiving messages and email from parents whose children would benefit from Robohands. One of the parents was Liam's mother, who told him about Liam, who was born with Amniotic Band Syndrom (ABS), which caused the boy to be born without any fingers on his right hand.

Van As doesn’t think of Robohand as a prosthetic hand. “I prefer to call it a mechanical device you can aid yourself with,” he told me over Skype. The ABS model for children is activated with the motion in your wrist, making it possible for the person wearing it to grasp and let go of an object.

Robohands is now working on creating more products. It has an Indiegogo page with the mission statement: “Creation and provision of mechanical devices to replace lost digits.” The page’s goal is to reach $10,000 in donations to take its OpenSource project even further.

In this vein, Van As alluded to working on an adult version of Robohands, but wouldn't give details about it.

This collaboration highlights the power and potential machines like the MakerBot hold. While it Robohands’ sole purpose is to be free and OpenSource, a future where objects like this are cheaply made and sold to the public inches closer and closer to reality.

“I think anybody who’s prepared to think of the box and apply their mind can make use of a 3D printer,” he said, adding: “It’s a revolution; put it that way.” 

[Image via Robohand]