Richard Van As’s company Robohand produces affordable, 3D-printed prosthesis to help hand amputees.
One fear that most people can emphasize with is the thought of losing a hand. It’s not hard to understand why. You could pick any random day out of the year and chances are most of your activities would involve the use of your hands. Even the loss of just a few of your ten fingers is something that could radically alter the way you live your life.
Just ask Richard Van As. A South African carpenter, he lost four fingers in a 2011 work accident. Hoping to find something to replace his lost digits, Van As took the internet and soon discovered that the functional prosthesis he was looking for were exorbitantly expensive and well outside of his price range. That being the case, his search wasn’t entirely fruitless. While Van As wasn’t able to find an affordable existing prosthesis, he did wind up finding the talent and tools he needed to make some of his own.
He met Ivan Owen, a mechanical effects artist with whom he designed and produced a new prosthesis that would serve as the basis of the duo’s company Robohand. Using 3D printers the company can fit and create custom prosthetics that, once assembled, can be controlled using the wearer’s own movements. “Within five minutes of getting it fitted, people can actually use it,” said Robohand’s communications manager Leonard Nel. “It’s anatomically driven by the wrist, elbow, or shoulder once fitted.”
Perhaps best of all, the prosthesis are relatively cheap as well. Whereas the equipment Van As was initially looking at could have cost him tens of thousands of dollars, a completed Robohand can cost clients as little $2000 and takes mere hours to produce and assemble. To hopefully spread the hands even further, Robohand has also shared the company’s software freely on the internet. It’s a move that may have already helped thousands. “There have now been over 143,000 downloads of the software,” said Van As. “It’s all about paying it forward as people want to help.”
In the future, Robohand may be paying it forward even more than it already is. With more than 200 people already using Robohand products, it now plans to expand beyond just hands. “Our next step is to print whole legs for people to use and walk on,” said Van As. “Then if we make that work, the goal is entire exoskeletons, for paraplegics to be able to walk again.”