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Collaborating Across Continents

How Three Stubborn Heroes Changed Lives of People with Disabilities

If you don’t think today’s connected world is great and has the potential to be unimaginably greater, have we got a story that will change your mind.

Three stubborn guys – complete strangers to one another – joined forces across continents and oceans. And because of the things Richard Van As, Ivan Owen and Jon Schull have achieved, parents across the world experience the joy of  at seeing their children overcome disability.

It’s a perfect example of the world-changing power of the delightfully stubborn and determined people who refused to let “no” deter them from their vision. (We wrote a piece about this called “Here’s to the Stubborn” and it inspired this series of profiles).

Richard: a terrible accident

In 2011, South African carpenter Richard Van As was at work on his table saw when an uncharacteristic lapse of attention cost him dearly. He lost two fingers on his right hand and badly damaged two more. “I decided in the emergency room, that I was going to make a set of fingers for myself,” Van As said. He initially didn’t recognize the significance of what he’d decided.

“At first, it was all about me and what I needed.  But as we got along further I realized that this could help a lot of people.”

Putting his remaining fingers to the task, Richard went online and investigated prosthetics. Overpriced and underwhelming, he saw that “ none of them restored functionality for a tradesman.

Then he found a YouTube video about a large, mechanical puppet hand built by a man in the United States.  The hand had an odd, spidery elegance and a beautiful mechanical simplicity.  Van As wrote an email to its creator.

Ivan: answering the call

Based in Washington state, Ivan Owen is an artist working in mechanical special effects “making weird, nerdy gadgets” like the hand Van As had seen.  “He was wondering if we could collaborate with one another to try to come up with some sort of design for homebrewed, mechanical finger prosthetics,” Owen recalled.  “This was a very large task for two guys working out of their garages, separated by 10,000 miles.  But we figured it was worth exploring.”

Originally working in aluminum, the two made slow and steady progress over the course of a year. Owen then flew to South Africa to meet Van As and help put on the finishing touches.  While he was there, Van As received a phone call from a South African mother who had heard about the project.

Her five-year-old son, Liam, had been born without fingers on his right hand.  It took the pair only a few days to fabricate a crude aluminum prosthetic that Liam could actuate by flexing his wrist, which he accomplished on his first try.  “It copies me!” he said.


But soon the pair encountered the classic problem with children’s prosthetics: They grow out of them so quickly, so Owen looked into 3-D printing. “The implications of that blew me away. We could make a design, and then simply scale it up as the child grew – essentially making it possible for his device to grow with him.”

3-D printers also made collaboration much faster.  “One of us would make a change and just e-mail the file to the other guy. That allowed us to hold the exact same piece and work together even though we were so far apart.”

Soon they delivered a new 3-D printed prototype device to Liam. Moments later, he was using the device to pick up coins from the tabletop. They called it Robohand, and posted the design files to an online database where others could use them for free.

The Robohand makes no pretense of trying to look like a real human hand, a surprising benefit for kids today. In the age of Ironman and Transformers,, children actually prefer devices that are colorful, machine-like and really cool.

The other kids are envious.

Jon: putting it on the map

Rochester Institute of Technology research scientist Jon Schull had been excited about the possibilities of affordable 3-D printed prosthetics for a year before he ever heard of Van As and Owen.  Schull had tried fruitlessly to create a consortium of universities, experts, and manufacturers to promote the cause.

When he saw a YouTube video about Robohand, he was moved – not only by the content but also the encouraging comments.

Schull created a mashup with Google maps with a simple instruction: Post your location here if you need a hand, or if you are willing to help. Connected by Schull, people with 3-D printers began making custom Robohands – or any of the other growing number of variants – for recipients they had never met.

Schull’s community grew to become e-NABLE. He describes it as a “global volunteer assistive technology network built on an infrastructure of electronic communications, 3-D printing, and good will.”  That good will is changing the world for kids like Kieran, one hand at a time.

Today, more than 5,000 members worldwide have delivered hands in 37 countries. Aided by a $600,000 grant from Google, e-NABLE plans to give away 6,000 prosthetics in the next two years while reducing the cost to $25.

The way we see it at Xerox, if three people, in different geographies with different backgrounds, can figure out a way to solve a problem that changes the world – well, then virtually anything is possible with the right amount of determination and dedication. 

While these achievements are easy to measure, the beneficial effect of this work  is impossible to overstate. Before too long, we may celebrate achievements on the world stage by someone who, as a kid, had a glow-in-the-dark, Ironman prosthetic hand.

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