3D Printed ‘Robohand’ Replaces Lost Fingers for Cheap

A do-it-yourself prosthesis

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Denis Farrell / AP

Dylan Laas shows how his Robohand works during an interview with the Associated Press in Johannesburg.

Step past the hype and 3D printing’s most palpable perk is that it can make complex custom solutions that cost piles of dough affordable — say robotic limbs designed to replace lost ones that might otherwise be financially unattainable.

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Take 12-year-old Dylan Laas, missing his right hand because of something known as Amniotic Band Syndrome, a condition in which parts of the amniotic sack entrap and hamper the development of fetal body parts, most often appendages. Laas now uses a relatively inexpensive, arguably unprecedented hand prosthesis custom-crafted by a 3D printer. “It looks cool. It makes me look like Darth Vader,” Lass told AP.

Laas owes his new hand to South African Richard Van As, a carpenter who himself lost four fingers to a circular saw accident in May 2011. The most functionally advanced solution — a biomechanical prosthesis activated by the electrical impulses generated when contracting muscles in the arm — would have cost Van As tens of thousands of dollars. So after watching a YouTube video of a mechanical hand prop designed by Bellingham, Wash. resident Ivan Owen, Van As decided instead to build his hand replacement himself.

The result: Robohand, a 3D-printed thermoplastic limb with clutching digits and a joint-related actuator invented by Van As and Owen. According to Robohand’s website, the pair collaborated through “emails, photos, drawings and Skype-sessions” to pull the do-it-yourself prosthesis together — a device whose early-stage iteration worked so well it helped Van As resume his carpentry career.

And it really is a DIY device, costing around $500 to produce and assembled by the wearer. Think of it as a kind of plastic glove you slip over your missing hand or fingers, stitched together with cables and screws. According to AP, Van As and Owen have so far created custom Robohands for roughly 170 people of all ages, each hand funded through donations.

What’s next? Van As and Owen want to create DIY kits anyone could buy off the shelf at a store. And while they wait for the design patent to come through, they’re working to fill new requests, like one for a tiny, multi-colored Robohand: “This is for a 2 ½ year old in Australia,” Van As told AP.

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