The Defense Department has made major advances in prosthetics over the last dozen years, to the point where it is beginning to work with artificial legs and arms that function via natural command on the brain.
The consumer market may not be there yet, but it is also advancing in the area of prosthetic hands – to the point where fully-functional, five-digit hands are being manufactured at home using 3D printers.
The hand was the culmination of collaboration between an inventor in Washington and a South African carpenter who had cut off four fingers from his right hand in a work accident. MakerBot, a manufacturer of 3D printers, includes a video with interviews with both men on its website.
Ivan Owen had a background in movie special effects, including a robotic hand seen in 2012 by Richard Van As of South Africa. Van As contacted him and the two began collaborating. The so-called Robohand project got a boost when MakerBot, a manufacturer of 3D printers, heard about it and provided each man with one of its machines.
Through the months of design, trial-and-error and redesign – with the men able to immediately turn their ideas into identical working models – they came up with a useful, inexpensive prosthetic hand that Van As was able to produce right at home. A simple movement of the wrist enables the wearer to open and close the fingers and thumb.
The only other parts, thin cables and some screws and bolts, can be picked up at any hardware store; MakerBot estimates the total cost of a hand made using its Replicator 2 machine at about $150.
One reason it is not expensive is that Owen has given the invention away by sharing the design files and instructions on Thingverse, an online community set up by MakerBot for help people discover, develop and share 3D printable products.
According to MakerBot, the 3D design files have been downloaded by people around the world.