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Bellingham man's work on low-cost prosthetics becomes international effort

Posing for photos, Ivan Owen, left, Torrae Owen and Elijah Forslof, right, show off their mechanical accoutrements at the first Bellingham Steampunk Festival held at the Fairhaven Village Green on Saturday July 7, 2012 in Bellingham. Ivan and his step-son Elijah built the mechanical hands and wings.
Posing for photos, Ivan Owen, left, Torrae Owen and Elijah Forslof, right, show off their mechanical accoutrements at the first Bellingham Steampunk Festival held at the Fairhaven Village Green on Saturday July 7, 2012 in Bellingham. Ivan and his step-son Elijah built the mechanical hands and wings. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Ivan Owen's fascination with mechanical devices for the movies has changed his life in unexpected ways. Now he and hundreds of other volunteers are improving the lives of people who, by birth or by accident, are missing fingers or hands.

What began as two people - Owen in Bellingham and Richard Van As in South Africa - trying to replace Van As' severed fingers, is now a global effort with more than 800 volunteer designers, occupational therapists and others designing low-cost prosthetic fingers and hands and making them with 3D printers.

Much of the work is being done through a collaborative online community called e-NABLE.

"The group operates on a tremendous amount of goodwill, which is a beautiful thing to see," Owen said.

Owen, 29, used to make costumes and mechanical props for science fiction and fantasy productions. About two years ago, Van As, a carpenter who lost four fingers on his right hand in an accident, saw information about a large mechanical hand Owen had created for a puppet.

Van As, who had no luck finding affordable prosthetic fingers, contacted Owen to see if they might work together to create artificial ones for him. They soon began swapping design ideas and making plastic finger parts with a 3D printer.

Then they learned about a South African boy who had been born without any fingers on one hand, and designed and printed a mechanical hand for him.

They made their designs "open source" - available to everyone for free - to encourage other people to develop and make prosthetics. That keeps research-and-development costs free, so the devices can be as inexpensive as possible.

Meanwhile, Jon Schull, a research scientist at Rochester Institute of Technology, in New York, heard about their work and started e-NABLE to provide a forum for people to share ideas and designs for affordable prosthetics.

"I thought that was very cool," said Owen, who became a member.

People in e-NABLE have created several new designs, and will soon reveal a unified design for a prosthetic hand, one that incorporates the best features of earlier models, much like an upgrade in computer software.

"This will be like our equivalent of Linux 1.0," Owen said.

GRAB AND HOLD

The plastic fingers and hands include cables that users activate by bending their wrist, finger or partial finger. Doing so closes the artificial fingers so they can grab something.

While the range of motion is limited, it's still a big improvement for people who can't afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a high-tech prosthetic.

With shared designs and 3D printing, the cost of the devices is so low, often $50 or less in materials, that larger fingers or hands can be made periodically as the user, often a child, grows.

And in this entertainment era of Transformers and other mechanical heroes and villains, the devices come with a certain cultural cachet.

"Since a lot of them are kids, they're pretty excited about it looking like a robot hand," Owen said.

Owen's day job is at the University of Washington Bothell, where he works on 3D printing projects and helps students using the printers. Outside of work, he has helped three Northwest families learn how to make hands.

The next step - moving 3D-printed prosthetics into mainstream medicine - might not be far away. A conference Sept. 28 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore will bring together Owen and other e-NABLE people to meet with medical professionals.

A leading figure at the conference will be Dr. Albert Chi, a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins and a renowned researcher on prosthetics. Chi makes regular visits to Haiti as a volunteer surgeon. Owen hopes that charities and other groups doing international work will consider plastic prosthetics to help people in such impoverished countries.

In time, Owen said, spinoff companies might turn e-NABLE designs into readily available prosthetics. He also hopes the devices' range of motion will improve. For now, he's looking forward to the conference in Baltimore to make connections and show what's already possible.

Thanks to sponsors, admission to the conference is free for veterans and for families that could benefit from the devices, and is only $50 for the general public and for medical professionals.

In other words, the cost of a new hand.

MORE INFORMATION

To learn about e-NABLE, go to enablingthefuture.org.

To see the South African boy who received an early prosthetic hand, go to this YouTube link for "Liam's Prosthetic Mechanical Hand."

To learn about Richard Van As and the Robohand, go to this YouTube link for "MakerBot and Robohand 3D Printing Mechanical Hands"

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