We expect 3D printing to change the world, someday, but it's heartwarming to see it actually happen in the here and now. A pair of dedicated tinkerers-turned-inventors, Richard Van As and Ivan Owen, recently uploaded a project to MakerBot's Thingiverse under the name robohand. The free, open source file contains 3D models for a set of fingers for a prosthetic hand. More specifically, the robohand design belongs to a real mechanical hand the duo designed for a five-year old South African kid named Liam, who was born without fingers on his right hand. Incredibly, Owen and Van As designed the hand while living about 10,000 miles apart.
Ars Technica has the full story on Owen's and Van As' collaboration. Van As, who lives in South Africa, lost four fingers of his own right hand in May of 2011. Buying a prosthetic would've cost something like $10,000 per finger, so he decided to try building his own. When he came across a video Owen uploaded to Youtube of a jumbo-size mechanical hand, he asked Owen to team up.
The rest of the story reads like a textbook case of new technologies making the world a better place. First the pair had to ship prototypes back and forth across the globe for iteration. Then the blog about the project started getting attention, and Liam's mom contacted the designers. Owen flew to South Africa for an in-person build session in November, and the pair decided to build a hand for Liam in addition to finalizing Van As' prosthesis. And then MakerBot caught wind of the project and donated a pair of Replicators 2s to each builder.
The Robohand blog expresses just how big a deal getting the Replicators was for the project:
"Today Rich and Ivan had their first virtual build session together. While separated by 10,000 miles, they were able to confer with each other while looking at exactly the same object.
And that object had just been sent from one person to the other as a digital file via email!!!!
At one point Richard printed a file that Ivan had sent. After it printed out, Rich suggested some changes, sent Ivan the new measurements, Ivan modified the file in OpenSCAD, sent the new version to Rich, and Rich started printing out the modified version of the file…. ALL WITHIN THE SPACE OF 20 MINUTES!!"
The mechanical hand is built from a variety of materials, included a molded thermoplastic gauntlet, metal bolts for joints and bungee cables for moving the fingers, but the fingers are now all MakerBot-built, and Liam's amazingly accurate with the hand, even with only a few days of practice. The project isn't over, and Van As and Owen are taking donations to be able to continue their work, but they're not selling anything.
The robohand may well prove to be the most important thing uploaded to Thingiverse so far, and considering it's an open source project, we expect it'll keep improving--hopefully enough to rival other artificial hands that tens of thousands of dollars.