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This 5-Year-Old’s Prosthetic “Robohand” Was Built By Amateur Internet Collaborators. And It’s Cheap.
February 6, 2013
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Here's a story about how technology can bring people together to do amazing things - and really make a difference in someone's life.

Liam is a five-year-old boy who lives in South Africa. He was born without fingers on his right hand.

Now, thanks to a partnership that began with a YouTube video, Liam has a mechanical hand (nicknamed "Robohand") that allows him to throw balls, pick up coins and do most other things a hand can do, NBC News reports.

Here's how it all went down. In December 2011, Ivan Owen, an amateur mechanical engineer in the U.S., posted a video on YouTube of the giant mechanical hand he built for fun.

The vid got popular, and Richard Van As, who lives in South Africa, saw it online.

Van As lost the fingers on his right hand in a woodworking accident, and saw the potential for Owen's project to become something more than just a novelty.

He got in touch with Owen, and they started building a moveable prosthetic hand that could be used by anyone - and wouldn't cost thousands of dollars. Although they made great progress, they'd never met in real life, and all of their collaboration took place through email.

Last November, they met up in Johannesburg to start a new project: building a custom hand for Liam. Thanks to the work they'd already done online, they were able to build the hand, and get Liam using it, in a matter of days.

There was another partner that made the creation of Liam's hand possible.

Early in their online collaboration, Owen told 3D printer company MakerBot about the project he and Van As were working on. The company donated two new Replicator 2 printers, one for each collaborator.

The printers allowed the partners to work on prototypes without the expense and waiting time of mailing parts back and forth. Instead, one guy would email a design spec to another, who printed the 3D part in his own lab.


As for the design of the Robohand, it's intended to be as simple as possible.

"No electronics, no sensors, nothing," Owen told NBC News. "That means it's easier to maintain and costs less."

At the moment, the entire hand costs about $150 to build, and the collaborators think they can make it cheaper still.

The hand is controlled by a system of cables. When the user angles his or her wrist, it causes the fingers to open or close. It's not new tech: the principle has been used in prosthetics for decades.

And maybe the best thing about it is that people can build it themselves (provided they have access to a 3D printer). The parts that aren't 3D printed can be bought off the shelf at any hardware store.


Owen and Van As have made the design available on their website and Thingiverse, a 3D printing site. It's free to download and use, and they hope it might help people in areas where advanced medical care isn't available.

"Our vision is to make this available for people and locations where there's no infrastructure present," Owen said.

For more on the project, and to donate, check out their blog and page.

And if you want to read another incredible story about someone regaining the use of their limbs, check out this from the Guardian: Iraq war veteran Brendan Marrocco recently received a bilateral arm transplant surgery.

Via NBC News


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