3D Printing Delivers Functional Prosthetic Hands at a DIY Price

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Dylan Laas, 12, says Robohand makes him look like Darth Vader.

For $150, the 3-D printed Robohand also lets Dylan, who is missing the fingers on one hand as a result of Amniotic Band Syndrome, grab things with bendable fingers, which most prosthetic hands don’t.

Robohand consists of a set of fingers that respond by grasping and then opening when the user bends his or her wrist. It was designed by Richard Van As, a South African carpenter who lost four fingers in a circular saw accident, and Ivan Owen, a Seattle mechanical theatrical props designer. The two worked together and eventually hit upon 3D printing as a way to develop prototypes quickly and keep the final manufacturing cost down.

“When I cut my fingers off, it was on a Saturday afternoon, and I went to the hospital. I had actually decided when I was in the emergency room that I was going to make a set of fingers for myself,” Van As said in a video about the project.

Van As originally imagined making just fingers, but he soon began to encounter parents of children with Amniotic Band Syndrome, which affects 1 in 1,200 newborns mostly with malformed or missing fingers and hands. Van As decided to make an entire hand. Wearers who have partial fingers can still opt to attach individual finger caps directly to their own hands.

van-as-working-smThe hand is entirely printed but for the cables that connect the fingers to the cam, a moldable thermoplastic sleeve that makes the hand wearable and the bolts that hold everything together. It can be sized to fit children or adults with a few quick changes to the computer file that guides the printer.

Robohand is exactly the kind of uplifting DIY project that a 3D printing company wants to highlight. And so, when MakerBot discovered Van As and Owen collaborating to build the early prototypes on its Thingiverse platform earlier this year, the company gave them two Replicator 2 Desktop printers.

Van As and Owen have since provided free Robohands to four South African children, and the open-source design has been downloaded more than 3,500 times in just three months.

Robohand is in the process of obtaining non-profit status in South Africa.

Photos courtesy MakerBot

Cameron Scott

Cameron received degrees in Comparative Literature from Princeton and Cornell universities. He has worked at Mother Jones, SFGate and IDG News Service and been published in California Lawyer and SF Weekly. He lives, predictably, in SF.

Discussion — 6 Responses

  • Joe Calvo September 14, 2013 on 8:48 am

    Hi. My name is Joe Calvo and I’m a student and president of the Student Occupational Therapy Association at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, FL. I’ve seen a few articles about 3d printer made hand prosthesis and am forming a student committee to make a proposal to our department chair to get material and funding for 3d printers, materials, and hopefully further research and studies.

    I have the support of a couple OT hand therapists and clinicians, but am posting to see if I can get more information and/or resources directly from you, the source, and other professionals in engineering, business, research, etc. Please contact me when you get a chance. This technology and applications in therapy and healthcare are cutting edge, and my class is excited and motivated to build evidence and efficacy for its viability.

    Our goal is to further research and exposure of this product for clinical applications, and then hopefully build a presentation for the American Occupational Therapy Association conference in 2015.

    This is the part of the movie where we start changing the world for the better.

    Best wishes,
    Joe Calvo

    • Jen Owen Joe Calvo September 17, 2013 on 8:39 am

      Hi Joe –

      I am Ivan’s wife (He is the co-creator of Robohand and is here in the USA (WA State) and he is currently working with a few universities, doing TED talks and such and he would be happy to chat with you about getting your students excited about 3d printing)

      his email is:

  • Brett Sidaway September 16, 2013 on 8:17 am

    after all the negative stories about 3D printing its great to read a really positive story. Well done Richard and good luck Dylan

  • Facebook - wihayun November 28, 2013 on 9:16 am

    I miss a left hand, 25 age male. I wonder how to print my 3D hand. can someone help.?

  • Facebook - wihayun November 28, 2013 on 9:17 am

    I am 25 age miss left hand. Can someone help me to print 3d hand???

  • Facebook - empty.strikeii January 31, 2014 on 10:29 am

    It’s really a great concept and one that truly shows how beneficial 3D printing is for mankind. I hope they improve on this and print out entire limbs in the future. That’d help a lot more people. Nevertheless, this is also life changing for many people out there.