"I was in a position to see exactly what happens in the human hand. I got the basics of what it's all about and thought yeah, I'll make my own."
Richard van As is recalling the moment in May 2011 when he sat in a Johannesburg hospital waiting to hear if his fingers could be stitched back on. Just an hour earlier, he had been in his carpentry workshop sawing wood when the saw slipped and ripped diagonally through the four fingers on his right hand. "It all happened too quickly to know what actually happened," he remembers.
Rather than fear the outcome, or dwell on the repercussions of losing his fingers, he was already thinking of ways to fix the problem, like a true carpenter.
After days of scouring the Internet he couldn't find anywhere to buy a functional prosthetic finger and he was astonished at the cost of prosthetic hands and limbs which began in the tens of thousands of dollars. But his online surfing paid off as it brought him to an amateur video posted by a mechanical effects artist in Washington State, by the name of Ivan Owen.
Together, the pair developed a mechanical finger for van As, but their partnership has also gone on to benefit countless hand and arm amputees around the globe, through the birth of the company "Robohand."
Officially launched in January 2012, Robohand creates affordable mechanical prosthetics through the use of 3D printers. Not only that, but it has made its designs open source, so that anyone with access to such printers can print out fingers, hands and now arms as well.
Using the process of additive manufacture, the specialized printers use the thermoplastic material Polylactide (PLA) to print body parts such as knuckles and joints, which when combined with stainless steel and aluminum produce a personalized prosthetic which customers can assemble and fit themselves courtesy of a free open-source manual available to them.
"Within five minutes of getting it fitted, people can actually use it," explains Leonard Nel, the communications manager in the team. "It's anatomically driven by the wrist, elbow, or shoulder once fitted," he adds -- meaning its movements are controlled by the user.
The first Robohand ever created was made for five-year-old Liam, from South Africa, who was born with amniotic band syndrome (ABS), which left him with no fingers on his right hand. Within minutes of fitting his newly printed mechanical hand Liam beamed excitedly and expressed how he could now "pick up stuff," describing its movement by saying: "it copies me."
"They all have their special moment," says Nel.
Van As drives the whole process on simplicity, voicing his desire to remove unnecessary red tape and cost when providing people with something as essential as a limb. A full adult hand costs as little as $2,000, takes five and a half hours to print and approximately 10-15 hours to assemble.
Ordering a prosthetic is also quite simple. Customers are sent measurement forms to complete and send those in combination with 3-D scans of their hands for translation into the software, which will print out the parts for their desired prosthetic. Where 3-D scans aren't feasible, hard molds can instead be made and shipped to the team in South Africa.