Technology is a tool: We can print guns, but we can also print prosthetic limbs

The same week that brought us a video of someone firing a gun built using parts manufactured on a 3D printer, on Wednesday offered us an inspiring story about using the same type of printer to manufacture a prosthetic hand for more than hundred times less than the cost of a traditional prosthetic set of fingers.

The story of the Robohand is as inspiring as an Oprah interview. One of the participants, however, noted that he didn’t intend to help those missing a limb. Instead, he sought out a 3D printed hand to save himself after a wood working accident shaved off four of his fingers. And yet, thanks to a collaboration between carpenter Richard Van As in Johannesburg, and a Seattle prop designer a five-year old born without fingers now has a more functional hand.

There’s also an Indigogo campaign to raise money to make more of these and help more children and adults born without fingers get their own Robohands. It’s heartwarming.


The collaboration between the two also emphasizes the best of what the internet and connectivity has to offer. This story wouldn’t have happened without a 3D printer, but it also wouldn’t have happened without the rapid dissemination of information enabled by the internet. For example, the South African woodworker first learned about Ivan Owen in Seattle because a video Owen had done showing a robot hand he had made went viral.

Then, there’s the building of the hand, which costs about $150. After Owen and Van As developed the plans for a hand, they made the plans open source and freely available on the internet. At a point where plenty of people are worrying about the IP infringement implications of 3D printing, such as printing out a proprietary design such as LEGOs or the dangers of evading regulations by printing harmful devices such as guns, this story is a reminder that people will use 3D printing for good as well.

Yes, this story is being pushed hard by MakerBot, the company that makes 3D printers (there are more than 15,000 of them in use today), but it’s also a reminder that as any new technology is introduced it will be used for both good and bad. And with regulators having met last month in Washington DC a conference to discuss some of the implications of 3D printing technology, it’s good to remember that 3D printers are a tool capable of good or bad when pondering upcoming laws and regulations.

We are lucky to live in a time when technological advances are making new things possible at pace that is possibly more rapid than any other time in human history. We have the rapid dissemination of knowledge and ability to share across continents thanks to broadband. Crowd funding tools now allow a wider spectrum of people to raise money for their ideas and we also have tools like 3D printing to turn digital designs into physical products.

And perhaps most of all, we have an engaged community of people who have the technical know-how reaching out to those around the world who have the curiosity and intelligence to make a difference. Now those billions can have the tools as well.