How 3D printing gave a craftsman his hand back

Beth van As remembers hearing her husband Richard shout from the front door: “Babe! We need to go to the hospital!”

It was a Saturday afternoon and she was exhausted and ready to rest. As she made her way downstairs she thought, ‘Oh, what have you done now?’, but nothing could have prepared her for what she saw. “It was this gruesome scene and I thought, ‘Oh okay, that’s what you did.’”

Richard had just cut off two of his fingers and partially severed a third while working with a table saw in his workshop.

The doctors were unable to reattach his fingers so Richard started to think of ways he could get new fingers himself.

Within a few months of his accident, Richard had developed a prototype of a hand, which could be attached to a limb without any electricity or robotics and today he is co-owner of a 3D printing company called RoboBeast.

“Craftsmen always cut themselves, I just did a proper job. It was a freak accident and I had to get over it. Figuring out how to fix it was my therapy,” he says.

The birth of Robohand

Richard refused to stay in hospital after his surgery, saying he needed to get back to work and figure out how to do it with one hand.

He went back into his workshop and changed it around so everything was suitable for a left-handed person.

He refused to feel sorry for himself because he had a project deadline for that week. He completed it on time.

“It’s funny, the client had even sent me flowers but I didn’t want to sit on the couch and feel sorry for myself,” he says.

Beth says the experience was an emotional roller coaster for her at first, but because she knows her husband well, she knew it would have damaged him more to sit back and watch life happen to him.

Richard had hospital bills of about R180 000 and could not afford prosthetic limbs. He started looking for alternatives that would give him the same functionality at a lower cost.

“A myoelectric hand can cost anything between R250 000 and R500 000 and you can’t bath or swim or anything with them because they’re electric,” says Richard.

With the internet as his friend he started looking into developing hands that are completely anatomically driven.

“This means they mimic what the human body already does, so even if you have never had limbs before it follows the natural movement of your anatomy,” Richard says.

He started communicating with Ivan Owen from Washington State in the United States. Ivan had developed a large mechanical prop hand, so Richard wanted to work with him to develop something that could be more user-friendly.

The two spent a few months chatting via cyber space and after starting an Indiegogo crowd-sourcing campaign to bring Ivan to South Africa, they developed an aluminium hand for a young boy named Liam. That was the birth of Robohand. 

The success for Liam was not enough for Richard. He wanted to develop something cheaper than the aluminium Robohand because he wanted it to be accessible to more people.

He then thought of recreating the Robohand but through 3D printing. Ivan and Richard had two Makerbot 2 3D printers donated to them and they started work on developing the right prototype.

“He would work through the night. He wasn’t sleeping, for one because of the pain, but also because he was determined to crack this,” says Beth.

From Robohand to RoboBeast

Ivan left Robohand and Richard continued working on making Robohand as efficient as possible.

After developing the hand on various types of printers, Richard was not happy with their quality and decided he would build his own 3D printer.

“To make the best hands possible I needed the right printers and they were all just not up to scratch. It was a lot of on-the-job training. I assessed what was wrong with the others and developed ways to improve them,” Richard says.

He wanted a machine that would be robust, reliable and – most importantly – of good quality. His plan was to go to war-torn Syria to help people who had lost limbs.

 “I needed a machine that would be moveable. In Syria the hospitals are targeted more than schools. Hospitals literally have to move every 24 hours,” he says.

He finally cracked his own 3D printer and named it the RoboBeast.

With a back-up battery that can be solar powered and able to print while lying on its side, Richard ensured that his machine would be able to work in the harshest of conditions. 

Richard took four of his machines on a mission to Syria where he tested its durability for the first time.

Upon his return he decided to commercialise the project, which is when he met his partner Simon Carter, who has years of experience in marketing and advertising.

With Richard being a man of very few words, Simon says their partnership works really well. “It’s a perfect yin and yang. He’s the brain and I do all the talking,” he laughs.

The two met in May 2014 and initially worked from Richard’s house before moving to a space at House4Hack, an idea incubation centre in Centurion that Richard co-founded.

Simon says at House4Hack they were able to collaborate with some people who helped develop the firmware and with ideas that Richard then grew from there.

“If it wasn’t for them I don’t think we would be where we are today,” Simon says. He says one of the unique things about RoboBeast is that all parts are made in South Africa. 

This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in the 18 June 2015 edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here