3-D Printer Brings Dexterity To Children With No Fingers


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Richard Van As was working in his home near Johannesburg, South Africa, in May of 2011, when he lost control of his table saw.
"It's a possibility that it was a lack of concentration," he says. "It's just that the inevitable happened."
The carpenter lost two fingers and mangled two more on his right hand. While still in the hospital, he was determined to find a way to get back to work. Eventually, solving his own problem led him to work with a stranger on the other side of the world to create a mechanical hand using a 3-D printer. Other prosthetics, including a lower jaw, have been made with the technology before, but making a hand is particularly tricky.
As soon as he got out of the hospital, Van As began researching prosthetics online. They cost thousands of dollars — money he didn't have.
So in the meantime, he rigged up an artificial index finger for his right hand with materials from his shop. But he kept looking for help or a collaborator — someone who could help him fix his hand.
In time, Van As came across a YouTube video from Ivan Owen. In the video, Owen, a special effects artist and puppeteer in Bellingham, Wash., was demonstrating one of his creations, a big puppet hand that relies on thin steel cables to act like tendons, allowing the metal digits to bend.
"The complexity of the human hand has always fascinated me [and] really captured my imagination," Owen says.
The two began working together long distance — Skyping, sharing ideas, even sending parts back and forth. Finally, Owen flew to South Africa to finish the work in person with Van As. And today, Van As has a working mechanical finger to assist him with his work.
But something else happened on Owen's visit to South Africa: While he was there, Van As received a call from a woman seeking help for her 5-year-old son, Liam Dippenaar, who was born without fingers on his right hand. The cause was a rare congenital condition called amniotic band syndrome. In ABS, fibrous bands can wrap around a hand or a foot in utero and cut off circulation.
Van As says he and Owen looked at each other and were of one mind: " 'Yeah, easy, no problem.' "
Within days, they developed acrude, mechanical handfor Liam, with five aluminum fingers that opened and closed with the up and down movement of Liam's wrist. Owen still remembers the 5-year-old's reaction when they rigged up the device for the first time.
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But can it help an old black woman who recently became a dual stumpy?