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Text and photos: Sean Woods. Article from the February 2013 issue of Popular Mechanics Magazine.
Prosthetic fingers needn’t cost an arm and a leg.
A long-distance collaboration between two men – one based in the US, the other in South Africa – is making it possible for people with missing fingers and limited resources to get the prosthetics they so desperately need.
The story begins with a momentary distraction. One second, Richard van As was in his home workshop, feeding a length of wood through his table saw; the next, an excruciating pain was shooting up his neck, the air filling with the unmistakable smell of blood. Looking down, he stared in horror at his gore- splattered workbench and mutilated right hand. In the blink of an eye, the Gauteng-based professional carpenter’s worst nightmare had come true – he’d severed four fingers.
For most of us, a calamity of this nature would have spelled the end of our workshop activities and start of a long and emotionally searing journey through treatment and rehabilitation. Van As was made of sterner stuff, and determined from the outset that he would not allow the accident to get him down. He recalls: “While sitting in the hospital’s emergency room, I found myself examining my stump. There and then, I decided that I wanted to make a new set of fingers for myself.”
Meanwhile, he had no intention of letting things slide. After being “reluctantly” discharged by medical staff the next day, he headed straight back to his workshop, explaining that he had a deadline to meet: “The last thing I wanted was to disappoint my client, so I spent the Sunday figuring out how I was going to finish the job on time. It was rough. There was no way I could plan for the amount of pain I was in. I also had to face the machine that had just cut off my fingers.”
Swallowing his apprehension, he decided to simply get on with it. Switching on the table saw, he gritted his teeth and completed the required cuts. That accomplished, he assembled all the components and managed to complete the job on time. “It was a huge confidence-booster,” he said afterwards. “Now I was convinced that I would heal up in time and be able to continue with my carpentry. It would just take me a little longer to get things done, that’s all.”
Coming to grips
With his work pressure slightly relieved, Van As now had time to concentrate on his own pet project – devising a prosthetic to replace the severed fingers.
His first step was to go online and check out the options. At first, his quest seemed hopeless. Although he managed to find two companies that manufactured high-tech prosthetic fingers fairly quickly, they cost about R100 000 apiece, putting them way beyond his reach. After that, he recalls, he became bogged down with a slew of depressing stories about other people’s accidents and the subsequent effect on their lives.
Says Van As: “I researched everything I could think of, including visits to robotic and bionic Web sites. I ended up contacting literally hundreds of guys, only to hear either ‘money, please’ or ‘sorry dude, we can’t help you’.” Refusing to give up, he took a chance and wrote to the MythBusters team in the United States. “I told them there’s a myth out there that you can’t make mechanical fingers!” It didn’t work, he recalls with a grin.
Finally, after a fruitless six-month search and numerous “scrapped designs”, Van As hit gold. He’d been punching random descriptions into his search engine and, as luck would have it, stumbled across American Ivan Owen’s YouTube post showcasing his “large mechanical hand”.
Says Van As: “I think anyone who comes across Ivan’s video will reckon he’s lost it. But because I was serious about finding a solution, I sat up and took notice. I watched his video every morning for a good month while trying to mimic his ideas and blend them with some of my own.”
Two heads are better than one
Having been disappointed countless times, and not being the kind of guy who likes asking for stuff anyway, making that initial contact didn’t come easy. When Van As eventually plucked up the nerve to approach Owen, his diffident request was to ask whether the American might be keen to “lend him a hand”. To his delight, Owen’s response was not only prompt, but resoundingly positive.
For Owen, Van As’s request came as a real shock. For starters, he wasn’t in the prosthetics business, and he’d actually created the hand as a fun prop for a sci-fi convention he and his wife had decided to attend, posting the video on YouTube for a laugh. That someone would see any real-world potential in it was the furthest thing from his mind.
Having previously worked as a PLC programmer and automation technician, where he was exposed to myriad weird automated industrial machines, Owen was fascinated by the mechanically bizarre. In fact, he tells PM, he derives such pleasure from creating oddball designs that he’s launched his own special effects company, running it from home in his spare time.
Says Owen: “I get the strangest requests. Actually, it was one of them that gave me the inspiration to build my hand. I was commissioned by a guy to fabricate an animatronic spider mask with moving, leg-like mandibles. I never managed to complete the mask… but I did learn how to make fingers!”
“I must have read Rich’s e-mail, short as it was, at least four or five times before responding,” he recalls. “It never occurred to me that the thing I was tinkering around with for amusement could actually be used for a good and valid purpose. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realised Richard was right. There had to be a solution, and the two of us could find it together.”
Making a difference
From the outset, Van As and Owen found themselves in complete agreement. Both were clear on one fundamental point – they were going to take the open source route and freely share whatever success they had with other amputees. They also had no interest in recreating actual hands. As Van As explains: “We’re trying to make something that’s practical; we’re never going to be modelling jewellery. Anyway, since both of us view the human hand as a tool, we figured we should make it look like one. If someone else wants to take our design and make it look like a real hand, that’s up to them.”
While they got their collaborative effort off the ground via e-mail and Skype – bearing in mind that they lived on different continents, about 16 000 km and several time zones apart – Owen’s professional photographer and graphic-designer wife built a dedicated Web site to document their progress. This way, they’d be able to share their project with others and, most importantly, ask for donations to buy the required tools and materials.
Next, Van As made a mould of his disfigured hand and sent it to Owen. Now that they had an identical “matrix”, Van As bought a Meccano set, Owen went for the Erector option, and they got down to work.
Initially, although they remained in regular contact, the two men worked largely independent of each other. What’s surprising is that their designs ended up looking virtually identical. The only real difference was the way in which they strapped their respective prostheses to the hand.
Says Van As: “By then, I’d already had more experience working with orthopaedic plastic than Ivan.”
Although things were going well, the huge time difference between their locations made their communications extremely frustrating. Recalls Van As: “There were many days when I’d find myself waiting impatiently for Ivan to wake up. That said, at the time I wasn’t doing much sleeping because of the pain, so it worked out just fine!”
Eventually, they reached the point where, if they wanted to further improve their design, they would need to do it face to face. The obvious solution was to fly Owen to Gauteng, but raising the funds for a return ticket proved nigh on impossible. Fortunately, Van As’s best friend, Mark Cowley, had racked up a stack of frequent flyer miles, which he gladly donated to the cause. Around this time, they also secured enough donations for Van As to buy a milling machine, allowing them to dramatically escalate the speed and quality of their work.
November duly arrived, as did Owen. The two headed straight for Van As’s workshop – and stayed there for virtually the whole duration of Owen’s 4-day visit.
Says Van As: “Working with someone and having the ability to thrash out problems together beats collaborating across continents, hands down. Already, the changes we’ve been able to make to my hand are phenomenal, and we’re finally at the point where we have a practical design. All we need do now is make it accessible.”
Van As and Owen hoped their efforts would help improve people’s lives, but they had no idea just how soon opportunity would come knocking. Just before Owen arrived in South Africa, Van As was contacted by Yolandi Dippenaar. Her 5-year-old son, Liam, had been born without a thumb or fingers on his right hand. Invited to the workshop, he turned out to be a spirited, boisterous little boy who had no conception of what disability meant. He was promptly dubbed “Little Bull”.
Because he often reversed letters when writing, everyone assumed that Liam was left-handed, and probably dyslexic. However, while observing him at play, Van As began to have second thoughts. As a test, he offered Liam an object and noticed how he initially reached out with his right hand before switching to his left. Intrigued, Van As immediately fabricated a makeshift attachment that could hold a pen – and the result was amazing. “Liam wrote his name perfectly – goodbye dyslexia! We also established that he was actually right-handed, and he now has an aid to help him in this area.”
Much of the time Owen and Van As spent in the workshop together was focused on designing and fabricating a hand for Liam, using affordable materials rather than expensive options such as titanium. They decided to make the fingers longer than usual “because he was growing so fast”. Van As explains: “We first want to see how he handles the design, whether he manages to break it, and if so, how he does it. Once we’ve established that, we’ll take things further.”
Just before Owen returned home, he had the pleasure of watching a cheerful Liam using his new prosthetic to pick up items in his right hand for the first time in his life. That’s the kind of stuff that makes grown men cry.
At the time of going to press, the two had secured enough funding for Owen to purchase another milling machine back home. Joining their creative party, MakerBot has donated two of its Replicator 3D printers, allowing the collaborators to easily fabricate plastic components in their homes. Says Van As: “We’re both very grateful. These machines will help us change lives. Now we’ll be able to not only fabricate more complex components, but also scale them to suit individual needs.”
- For more information, call Richard van As on 074 104 1847 or visit the Web site: http://robohand417.wix.com/robohand pm
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