Sunday, February 3, 2013

Robohand and The Power of 3D Printing

Robohand downloaded into SU8 using an STL plugin.
NEWSannouncements :: Out of all the things we can crowdsource, solutions for health and well-being seem like they should be at the top of the list. The problem is, most of us don't think about things like losing fingers, cancer, or other problems until we, or someone we love is effected and by then, it is too late to do anything but hold on tight and make due with what is already available.

It is the year 2013, and it would seem like losing a hand should be a good opportunity to either have a new one grown for you, or a superior robotic limb fitted in its place. But unfortunately, neither of these things have come to pass yet. Why?

While it has a huge impact on the quality of life of an amputee, or someone born without functioning limbs, there doesn't seem to be a huge market, and therefore the incentive to develop these solutions at a faster pace. People who desire to tackle these problems out of desperation or altruism usually don't have the resources or tools to get very far.

But all of that looks like it is about to change -- thanks to the personal fabrication revolution.

Personal fabrication in many ways is perfect for solving personal problems or addressing preferences that have been neglected by society for whatever reason. By putting a cheap, easy-to-use factory of sorts on your desktop and connecting you with the designs of anyone and everyone on the planet also working on your particular area of interest, a collective research and development/collaboration can take place, greatly accelerating progress and producing solutions quickly.

One story that is breaking involves an American, Ivan Owen, and a South African, Richard Van As, who are working together on developing replacement fingers for amputees and people born without them. Much of their fabrication appears to still be done using traditional shop tools, but their latest post involves a 3D printed hand (Robohand) made for a young child, giving him the ability to grasp objects with his otherwise fingerless hand. 

The STL file for the printed hand was uploaded to the online 3D printing warehouse Thingiverse, and in less than an hour, I had it downloaded, imported into SketchUp, and assembled virtually on my computer. If I had a 3D printer, I could print it out, assemble it, and start improving on it in probably less than a week. 

The Robohand comes in separate STL files which I downloaded and imported into SketchUp8 using the new STL plugin. I virtually assembled the parts and exported these quick stills. A video of a real Robohand in action can be seen on YouTube. 

I'm not missing any fingers, nor do I know anyone who is, however, it would be so easy, and so cheap to print this out and tinker with it, use for teaching a class in biology, biomedical design, or just for fun, I could easily gain experience and then contribute to an otherwise obscure field I would never think about until it was too late.

The title of Richard Van As and Ivan Owen's latest blog post is titled -- and now it starts! -- which I think is very fitting. I think they realize the implications of what it is they are a part of and the vast number of people they will be empowering to solve problems, distribute research and development, and drive down the cost in time and money required to fit people with prosthetic limbs.

The implications this will have in other areas of biomedical technology, and in medicine, or other areas in general -- taking these novel technologies, skills, and collaborative tools to make real, meaningful change -- may also be very big. 

I believe the expertise and experience Richard and Ivan possess cannot be underrated, and their project requires support. People who have technical expertise can help them design better hands and fingers, people with money can donate, and people online, with access to or an interest in personal fabrication and IT can begin forging stronger distributed research and development networks to accelerate progress in neglected or critical areas.

With 3D printing, the future is what we make of it, literally.