Duct Tape and Spit - Paging Dr. McGuyver
Julian Smith tracks the rise of DIY medical devices.
When Richard Van As, a carpenter in Johannesburg, South Africa, cut off most of the fingers on his right hand with a table saw in 2011, he was already designing a homemade prosthesis in his head before he even left the emergency room. But he never imagined that within two years he would be spending nearly all his free time making artificial hands for people around the world.
As he recovered, Van As connected with Ivan Owen, a special-effects artist and puppeteer in Bellingham, Washington. Together they designed a simple yet effective mechanical hand that cost a fraction of the price of a typical prosthesis. Word of the project spread, and now Van As crafts custom Robohands for anyone who can afford the $500 in parts, and many who can’t. “I stopped counting at 100,” he says. “The demand is very great.”
The pair were able to create an inexpensive, useful medical device so quickly thanks to a combination of old-fashioned ingenuity and a cutting-edge technology toolkit. Van As originally found Owen through a YouTube video of a pair of mechanical costume hands he had invented. They talked on Skype and used free computer-aided design (CAD) programs to shape the pieces, emailing files back and forth. Eventually the company Makerbot donated two 3D printers — which create detailed objects out of extremely thin layers of plastic — to fabricate the parts.
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