Robohand started when Richard Van As, a woodworker from Johannesburg, South Africa, lost four fingers in a woodworking accident. After looking around for conventional prosthetic fingers and discovering that said fingers were way out of his price range at the sum of $10,000 apiece, Van As decided to turn where so many of us have turned, to the realm of the do-it-yourself project. Not being particularly skilled at that kind of craftsmanship, though, Van As turned to a theatrical prop maker from Seattle, Ivan Owen, who joined him in collaboration thanks to Owen's specialty in making entire hands.
The duo tried a variety of materials to find a way to make custom-designed finger replacements for less than the cost quoted to Van As, and eventually, considered the 3D printer as a way to do the job. The duo got in touch with MakerBot, who started helping in the design process, but quickly discovered that the process of designing new versions was taking a lot of time. Thus, MakerBot's CEO, Bre Pettis, donated a MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D printer to Van As and Owen--one for each--so that the duo could continue working on the design separately.
The donation drove the prototyping process down from a matter of weeks to just 20 minutes per version, as the duo could pass files back and forth with comparative ease and then create the new versions as needed. Eventually the duo created the Robohand, which has recently been posted to MakerBot's Thingiverse website.
The Robohand is pretty much what it sounds like, a set of fingers that can be customized to the user's dimensions that attach to a base structure which, in turn, attaches to the user's wrist. The wrist folds and contracts, which causes the fingers to tighten and release accordingly, operating in a way similar to a combination of a crab's legs and human fingers. Since the Robohand's plans are now on Thingiverse, anyone who needs a prosthetic hand can print one out for use. For younger people afflicted with the loss of a hand, the Robohand can even grow with the user as all that's needed is fresh filament to print out a new version.
This isn't the first time that a 3D printer has been used in the creation of prosthetic devices. Recently, a complete lower jaw prosthetic was made from powered titanium. A 3D printed practice liver gave surgeons a chance to repeat a surgery several times before launching into it on a real person. Hands, feet, and several other such body parts have been crafted from a 3D printer and used in the place of larger, more expensive prosthetics.
This in fact serves as one more example of how 3D printing will fundamentally alter the world as we know it. As the process improves, and more things can be done with 3D printers, we may well be approaching a world in which factories are no longer useful for any location, thrown over for items literally manufactured on demand. Only time will tell just how far these changes go, but the era of the 3D printer is looking to start up in earnest.