Using 3D printing for prosthetic finger production
What is the innovation and how does it address a pressing problem?
The "Robohand" is mechanical finger prosthesis intended to restore functionality to the hands of people who lack fingers. The Robohand is designed to be easily and cheaply constructed by a layman.
Finger prostheses which replicate the functions of real fingers need to be fitted to individual hands. Because they require such specific customization, they are typically extremely expensive—costing upwards of $60,000. For the vast majority of those in need of finger prosthesis, the cost places it beyond their reach.
Robohand is based on simple mechanics, using pulleys and cables to replicate the movement of fingers based on the movement of muscles in the hand. The Robohand was created with a focus on low-cost, functional design and can be reproduced and easily modified using a 3D printer. The hand can be built for about $150.
What existing practices inspired the innovation and how does it represent something new?
Richard and Ivan identified that the expense of the prosthetic hand was not due to the characteristics of the designs available on the market. Rather, the expense is due to the characteristics of the process used to create them. In fact, the actual mechanical configuration of the Robohand is based on a design produced by an Australian dentist in 1836. The innovation in Robohand is therefore not simply as a product. Rather, it is the process by which Robohand was developed and is made available. This process represents a radical shift in production processes.
Richard Van As, living in South Africa, and Ivan Owen, living in Washington State, collaboratively designed the Robohand. Using a combination of email, video chat and 3D printing, these two non-experts were able to design, fabricate and begin to distribute the Robohand. The design of Robohand is done on the computer, using a free software which anyone can access. There is no patent on the design, and the actual design file is similarly freely available online, along with instructions on how to adapt the design to an individual hand. Whereas before, someone needing prosthetic fingers would need to go to a specialist for a customized product, with Robohand they can make one at home.
Robohand anticipates the proliferation of a new technology—the 3D printer. With the increasing availability of affordable 3D printers, the capacity to self-produce the Robohand grows every day. This is a highly functional DIY prosthesis.
Please describe the social impact to date, as well as potential impact in the future.
The Robohand endeavor began in late 2011. The first Robohand prototype was built for Richard himself. Following that, Richard and Ian have supported the creation of 3 additional personalized Robohands.
For example, one Robohand went to a young boy named Liam. Liam was born with a condition that left him without fingers on his right hand. Liam’s parents came across the Robohand website, and they began to work with Richard and Ian to build a customized hand for their son. Liam’s parents report that he now uses the hand for everything in his everyday life—from brushing his teeth to playing sports. As Liam grows, his parents will be able to print him a resized hand.
In addition to the hands specifically supported by Richard and Ian, their design is spreading. A South African company has recently started mass producing an adjustable steel version of the Robohand. Others have contacted the pair through their blog, requesting support on their own endeavors to print the hand.
The Robohand represents hope for people who cannot afford costly finger prosthesis. In addition, the Robohand production cycle is an early case study of how 3D printing can potentially change how objects are produced and distributed, emphasizing a low-cost, communal, and dynamic process involving both experts and everyday people from all over the world united in their efforts to solve a problem.