3D printers: A cheap solution for amputees and those with genetic defects

Wed, 11/06/2013 - 2:24pm
Allegra Sparta, Editorial Intern

“Not to worry, I’ll just print another hand.” This statement would belong in a work of fiction a few years ago, but today, it is reality for those missing fingers or limbs. Prosthetics have come a long way from the archaic image of a pirate hobbling around his ship on a wooden peg leg. Even modern equivalents of this wooden limb, perhaps one made of steel and other more flexible materials, still leave users with a sense that something is lacking.

Advanced prosthetics, ones that rival the real thing, with mobile digits and functioning limbs, can set the user back tens of thousands of dollars, a financial hit most aren’t willing, or able, to take. Enter the 3D printer, a device that can turn a home into a tiny factory that produces objects made out of bent plastic. While one of these printers can set you back a few thousand dollars, the opportunities that appear after the initial investment make the cost worthwhile.   

For Paul McCarthy of Marblehead, Massachusetts, this printer offered relief from a twelve year-long heartache. His son, Leon, was born without fingers on one of his hands because of restricted blood flow in the womb. Doctors settled on the “he’ll just have to adapt” mentality as they knew most solutions would be costly and stressful. The desperate father researched the new technology and found an instruction manual, as well as a friend with a 3D printer he could borrow. 

He purchased the materials and assembled his son a “Robohand,” running him a bill that didn’t break the ten dollar mark. Wrist movements control the device, allowing Leon to grasp a water bottle or a pencil. Because of the low cost, the family is able to experiment with different models until they find one that is perfect for the child at various stages of his growth and development. 

The Robohand device originated when South African carpenter Richard Van As lost four fingers in an accident and became frustrated with the lack of inexpensive solutions. He reached out to theatrical designer Ivan Owen in Seattle, Washington after seeing a video featuring a mechanical hand used for a costume in one of his productions. Thanks to an influx of donations, the pair has fitted upwards of 170 people with 3D printed prosthetics. 

Van As plans to someday see Robohand kits on a shelf in stores all over the world. While the invention of the 3D printer has sparked some debate, using the technology for the production of affordable prosthetics is one outlet for the device that is irrefutably positive and beneficial. 


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