Life and limb
South African company Robohand creates inexpensive prosthetics for children using 3D printers
Students at Thembalethu School for the Disabled make art a little differently than most kids: Some use their feet and others their faces. That’s because of being born “limb different.”
For those with missing fingers, hands or arms since birth, even the simplest of tasks can be a mammoth challenge. Getting fitted with prostheses can cost tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of rand, the South African currency. It’s money their families don’t have.
But Ian Pells, a design and ceramics teacher at Frank Joubert Art Centre in Newlands, Cape Town, which provides extra lessons in art and creativity for a wide range of students in the Cape metropolis, was determined to help his pupils from the school. Trawling the web, he stumbled on South African inventor Richard van As, who’s created a free, online manual for 3D printing of prosthetic limbs. He runs a nongovernmental organization called Robohand.
With van As’ use of a 3D printer, a custom-made prosthetic finger costs the equivalent of less than $175, significantly cheaper than it would be otherwise. And it can be fitted and printed in five to 10 hours, depending on the complexity of the prosthetic. Encouraging reading for Pells.
“So I got his email, tracked him down,” said Pells.
“Stalked him,” van As interjected.
“Stalked him,” Pells admitted. “I harassed him into coming down here from Pretoria. I kept on phoning him because my aim was to put some hands on some of my learners.”
From accident to inspiration
Van As, who came up with the concept after losing four fingers to a circular saw in 2011, said he was “just a guy with an idea” when interviewed by The Big Issue during a free public workshop in Cape Town.
After his carpentry accident, van As couldn’t afford an expensive myoelectric hand, which detects a muscle’s electric impulses to activate an artificial limb. Motivated by pain and sleep deprivation, he looked for other options.
He’s now teamed up with Pells to fit four Thembulethu students with customized 3D-printed, aluminum-machined artificial limbs. The first was given to a young girl born with only one finger on her hand (her parents asked that she not be identified).
“We’ve created some additional fingers on that hand, particularly the thumb, to give her an opposing digit, so then she’ll actually be able to pick things up,” Pells said.
Created from Orthoplastic, a material used in making temporary splints and corrective braces, the devices are a lot cheaper than traditional prostheses and quick to produce.
Van As has intentionally kept the design in the public domain and his organization a nonprofit in the hope that others who don’t have access to very expensive commercial prostheses can benefit.
“I prefer to make a [roughly $300] profit than a [roughly $4700] profit, but sell a lot more,” said van As, adding that the main barrier to widespread rollout in Africa is that 3D printers cost almost $3,500, and the machines must be imported, incurring import duties.
Van As’ goal is to enable anyone to create their own prostheses. His initial plan was to make 100 hands “and then disappear.” But he said 100 hands quickly became 200, and 200 has now become about 600.
“You don’t need to be the engineer, the doctor, the this or the that,” he said.
“It’s all done for you, just follow the manual, just follow the general rules and keep it safe. ... I think if anyone applies their mind to something they can accomplish what they want to do.”
Ultimately, that’s what Cape Town art teacher Pells hopes to do: secure funding for printing equipment so he can produce the prosthetic limbs without having to order them from van As.
“I saw a spark in my class,” Pells said of a girl who despite missing all her fingers due to severe burns, has taught herself to write.
“All she needs is to be enabled, and she’s gonna fly. She’ll be the CEO of a company one day, I’m convinced of it. Right now she can’t pick up a bottle to drink. But with a Robohand she’ll be able to.”
Likewise, van As’ newest task is trying to develop cheaper printers he can sell to South Africans so they don’t incur added import costs. A “virtually indestructible” model he just completed took about two-and-a-half months to build.
Van As says he’s also busy with designs for prosthetic legs and feet. “There’s quite a bit of engineering going into it, to make sure it’s strong enough.”
The Robohand team is made up of only four people, van As and his wife included, and all profits go back into developing the product, van As says.
The organization was recently voted the public’s favorite project at the 2014 Design Indaba Expo in Cape Town and won a year-long mentorship from Absa’s Enterprise Development team.
With branches in Australia and the United States already, van As said they’re looking to expand to Germany and the United Kingdom “soon, soon.”
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