Necessity is often the mother of invention. After losing some of his fingers after a carpentry accident in the spring of 2011, Richard Van As in Johannesburg, South Africa began to research prosthetics. All of the available units that fit his needs cost several thousand dollars, which was unfortunately outside of his price range. Determined, he decided to develop an alternative prosthetic and soon realized he would need help in the endeavor.
After searching on the internet, Van As came across American puppeteer Ivan Owen. Owen had crafted intricate puppet hands with fingers that could bend through small steel cables which acted like tendons. Van As approached Owen with his project, and the two began to collaborate from opposite sides of the Earth. They spent countless hours emailing one another and talking on Skype, and Owen ultimately decided to go to South Africa so they could finish the prototype together.
Before the unit was even finished, a mother approached them about helping her five-year-old child who did not have fingers due to a birth defect known as amniotic band syndrome. This condition causes fibrous bands to wrap around digits or limbs, cutting off circulation to the distal part. It is estimated that up to eighty percent of newborns who have been affected by this disorder have deformed fingers or hands, and fifty percent also have other deformities such as a club foot or cleft palate. The two men did not hesitate and told the mother they would do everything they could to help.
The first working prototype was crafted out of aluminum and included thin cables which attached to the wrist, which was not completely unlike Owen’s puppets. The young boy could easily flick his wrist and see his new fingers bend; a sensation he had never known before.
Though Van As and Owen were very happy about their success, they decided to take things one step further to see if the devices could be manufactured more efficiently. Owen contacted the 3-D printing company MakerBot looking for assistance, and the company was happy to oblige in the form of a free 3-D printer. While their first aluminum hand took over a week to get just right, the printer can do it in 20 minutes.
They have helped fit over 100 children with these devices and have never accepted payment, not even for the parts. Additionally, the plans for the devices have been made available online for free. Anyone who needs a hand can have one for about $150 in parts. Stringing the wires in the hands can be a bit tricky, so a new design is in the works. Materials for this design cost only $5 and the pieces will snap together like LEGO bricks.