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3D printers give kids new hands and new hope
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It all happened in a flash. Carpenter Richard van As from Johannesburg, South Africa, was using a saw when it suddenly slipped and he lost four fingers on his right hand.

While he was in the hospital, he made up his mind that he would figure out a way to work with his hand again. But prosthetic hands and limbs cost tens of thousands of dollars.

He started scouring the internet, and eventually he found a video by a mechanical effects artist in Washington State, who made sophisticated puppet hands as props. For van As, a light turned on.

The two teamed up to design mechanical fingers for van As using 3D printers. In 2012, they founded Robohand, to make affordable hand and arm replacements for people around the world.

Robohand makes its designs open source, so anyone with access to a 3D printer can print out working fingers, hands, and even arms. So far, Robohand has helped over 200 people.

Printing prosthetics

Robohand's first customer was 5-year-old Liam from South Africa, who was born with amniotic band syndrome (ABS), which left him with no fingers on his right hand. Liam's mother, Yolandi Dippenaar, who found Robohand on Facebook, asked if they could help her son.

Liam's hand fits like a translucent glove with mechanical fingers that he can slip over his palm. Except for some stainless steel hardware and cording, the entire thing is made of thermoplastic that is printed on a 3D printer.

As soon as he was fitted, Liam was able to pick up a ball and play with toys using his new mechanical hand.

"To see him for the first time grasp something with his right hand, it was amazing," said Liam's mother.

Robohand has now made dozens of hands for kids with ABS. Ty Esham, a hand therapist in Decatur, Georgia, studied under Van As and makes Robohands in the U.S. She heard about Van As's robotic hand on NPR. She saw the usefulness immediately.

"I was ashamed that someone in the field of hand therapy had not made this," says Esham. A few months ago, she made a new hand for 10-year old Anastasia Oliveras from New Jersey, who was born with a partial right hand due to ABS. Her parents learned about Robohand on Facebook.

Esham made Anastasia a custom-made hand for $2,000. The cost for a traditional prosthetic hand runs around $60,000, and kids outgrow them every nine to 12 months, so the cost becomes astronomical. With a Robohand, Esham can print out a new custom hand when her patients outgrow them.

Now Anastasia can play baseball, ride a bike and carry her lunch pail, says Esham. "It feels good to know that people can have fuller lives when they have the tools to help them."

Hands for all

In addition to custom hands, Esham also makes kits for people to make hands themselves for $500 that include the thermoplastic and hardware that's custom-fitted using a mold of their childs' arm. Folks can print out the hand themselves as long as they have access to a 3D printer at a school or library, she says.

The technology is still new, however, and the construction process is a labor of love even for Esham, who takes about 20 hours to make a custom hand, including eight hours for printing.

"The parts are so teeny, especially for children's hands," says Esham, who sources parts from jewelry and hardware stores. She can only work for about four hours at a time before her own hands start cramping.

Although $2,000 is a fraction of the price of traditional prosthetics, it's still out of reach for many families. Robohand helps provide hands to those who can't afford them by using revenue and donations to make hands for low-income individuals.

One customer in Los Angeles paid for a hand, and when he saw how useful it was for his son, he bought one for 7-year-old Waldo Muller, another boy who was on Robohand's waiting list.

As Waldo grows, Robohand can simply scale his design larger and print out new ones. "He will be able to play ball like other children with two hands," says Muller. "He can play ball, hold bike handlebars."

Reaching around the world

Now Robohand had made hands for people in almost every country, though it stopped counting when the company made its 200th hand in November 2013.

Robohand designs, which are available for free on the Internet, have been downloaded over 140,000 times, so there's actually no telling how many people have printed their own hands.

"All you need is access to a 3D printer," says Esham, who also recommends the use of a physical therapist for fitting and learning to use it.

"But it's completely possible for someone to make a hand themselves."
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