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‘It’s like something out of a sci-fi film’

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Johannesburg - Scattered across the table are a selection of plastic fingers, each one more complicated than the last.

A five-year-old boy perched on a bar-stool picks some up and unscrews them, his tongue sticking out of his mouth in concentration.

His father, Rory Herman, stands next to him, determinedly manoeuvring the fingers of his son’s new hand.

Soon, these plastic fingers will be controlled by the boy.

Liam Herman was born without fingers on his right hand due to the effects of a congenital disorder called amniotic band syndrome (ABS).

ABs is caused by the partial rupturing of the amniotic sac, in which the foetus develops. Fibrous bands of the sac wrap around parts of the foetus, restricting blood flow, which can result in “natural amputation” before birth, or may require surgery afterwards to remove dead tissue.

Now, thanks to two men, their friends and families and a 3D printing company, Liam is learning how to use his very own Robohand – a homemade prosthetic that can mimic the gripping action of a real hand.

Richard van As and Ivan Owen are the brains behind the Robohand. They managed to co-build it despite a distance of almost 16 500km between them and no design plans to work off.

Owen lives in Bellingham, in Washington state in the US, while Van As lives in Randburg.

Using Skype and e-mail to discuss the design and building of the hand, and with just one physical meeting between the two, over three days in December last year, the pair designed and made Liam’s hand.

“We’re a bunch of dof okes (dim guys) compared to the world of designers,” said Van As, a cabinet maker who cut off the fingers on his right hand while he was working with a table saw in May 2011.

“I have a lot of expertise in doing things that I have no expertise in,” joked Owen via Skype.

Van As searched the internet and spoke to experts after his accident in the hope of finding a functioning prosthetic hand, but found they cost around R90 000 per finger. He was told it would be impossible to build his own.

After seeing a Youtube video of a mechanical hand that Owen had built for fun, Van As e-mailed him, asking if he would be interested in sharing ideas for a functioning prosthetic hand. The two began bouncing ideas off each other.

The pair later had two 3D printers donated to them by the US company MakerBot Industries. They use the printers to build the pieces for the hand.

They have gone through dozens of prototypes, constantly updating and improving the design.

The pair send each other updated designs and then print them out in order to test if their ideas will work. It takes about two-and-a-half hours for an entire hand to be printed.

“It’s like something out of a sci-fi film,” said Owen.

The designs for the Robohand are freely available on the internet, and the design is not patented, something the pair were keen to do from the beginning.

They rely on donations to cover the cost of materials, such as the plastic used to print the hand, which costs about R500 per kilogram.

“If we can manage to find the funding for it, we would love to have as many people benefit from it as possible,” said Owen.

They have had several requests for people in similar situations across the world, including Thailand, France, Canada and a boy in the Philippines, who is the same age as Liam.

Meanwhile, Liam picks up a ball and holds it above his head, the fingers of the Robohand clinging to it tightly.

The fortunate little boy received his Robohand last month, the night before his fifth birthday, and just a few months after his mom, Yolandi Dippenaar, contacted Van As.

She first saw the Robohand on Facebook.

The fingers of the hand close when Liam bends his wrist forward as this causes wires to pull on the underside of the digits, contracting them.

When he returns his wrist to its normal position, the bungee-cord strings on the upper side of the hand pull the fingers to an outstretched position again.

A video of him on YouTube picking up coins and throwing a basketball has already had more than 70 000 hits.

“It has been amazing, I’m speechless,” said Dippenaar.

“His friends at nursery school think it’s very cool,” she added.

“I’d like to thank this bunch (Liam’s family) for taking a chance on us,” said Van As.

He also thanked his wife Beth, Owen’s wife Jen, MakerBot Industries for the 3D printer donations and his friend Mark Cowley

“We didn’t take a chance; we believed in you,” replied Liam’s delighted mother. - The Star

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