How manufacturers are lending a hand to help injured people around the globe

Manufacturing people know how to do stuff predictably and affordably. It makes me proud to be part of that fellowship. This month, one of the all-time great examples of manufacturing as a way of life came across my screen in the form of the Robohand story. Maybe you’ve read about it.

Richard Van As, a woodworker from South Africa, had an accident in 2011 that cost him four fingers on his right hand. Over the course of a couple of years and in collaboration with Ivan Owen, a Seattle-area prop designer who had made special effects hands for the movies, Richard designed himself a prosthetic hand. It wasn’t the $10,000 per finger prosthesis that normally comes from the US medical community. Instead it’s a set of plastic digits that are activated by normal wrist motion. They allow Richard to throw and catch a ball and do most of his daily tasks. It can be fitted by a physical therapist, with minimal guidance from the designer or manufacturer.

J. Stanton McGroarty, CMfgE, CMRP, is senior technical editor of Plant Services. He was formerly consulting manager for Strategic Asset Management International (SAMI), where he focused on project management and training for manufacturing, maintenance and reliability engineering. He has more than 30 years of manufacturing and maintenance experience in the automotive, defense, consumer products and process manufacturing industries. He holds a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the Detroit Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in management from Central Michigan University. He can be reached at smcgroarty@putman.net or check out his .

Van As and Owen developed the design long-distance, using CAD software that designs parts for 3D printer production. As a result, they were able to produce the parts kit for the hand at a price that knocks the last two zeros off the normal bill for a prosthetic hand. They quote cost numbers like $150 for a complete hand. If they fit the prosthesis to a child, it is also a simple matter to scale the design up to larger sizes as he or she grows.

The Robohand design is being placed in the public domain, and printing can be accomplished with a MakerBot Replicator 2 printer, available for under $3,000. In fact, MakerBot donated two printers to the project, one for Owen and one for Van As. This enabled them to advance the design quickly by passing program updates via the web between South Africa and the US.

Additive manufacturing is a hot new technology. A lot of people are going to make a lot of money with it, and save a lot of resources in the process. That’s great, but it’s really heartwarming to find manufacturing people like Richard Van As, Ivan Owen and the folks at MakerBot sharing their exciting new tools, helping out instead of cashing in. They’re equipping other people of good will to help injured kids, land mine victims, wounded soldiers and many others. Recipients of Robohands will be able to return to self-sustaining, normal lives following catastrophic injuries.

For more technical details, here’s a good version of the Robohand saga.  Let’s hope we hear lots more stories like this one as additive manufacturing becomes a mainstream process. In fact, let’s all look for ways to make them happen in our own corners of the manufacturing world.

Read Stanton McGroarty's monthly column, Strategic Maintenance.