Printing Hope

All of us are familiar with the debilitating costs of medical care in America. Whether you’ve experienced it firsthand or vicariously through a friend or loved one, medical bills can destroy a person’s savings, credit rating, and even lead to eviction. As bad as that can be, those who have lived through amputation or who are missing body parts face yet another hurtle. The price of prosthetics can be startlingly high. For those without health insurance a prosthetic arm can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $100,000 depending on quality. Keep in mind this is for a single arm. If you want to be able to throw, swim, and climb you’ll likely need multiple prosthetics (or at least several expensive accessories). To make matters worse these prosthetics need to be replaced every 3 to 5 years due to natural growth adjustments and wear and tear. Depending on the nature of the condition, cumulative lifetime medical costs can easily pass $1,000,000

Ivan Owen didn’t set out to tackle prosthetic costs. In fact, it’s more accurate to say he stumbled onto the problem. When Owen uploaded a YouTube video of his outfit from a steampunk convention it set off a chain of events that would touch many people’s lives and change an industry forever. You see, Owen’s costume included a cool and functional mechanical claw.

Wolverine eat your heart out.

As happens, the YouTube video circulated around for a while. Out of the blue a poor South African carpenter named Richard contacted Owen asking for assistance in crafting a replacement finger for one he had lost in a woodworking accident. Realizing the financial limitations Richard was working with, Owen brainstormed solutions and prototypes that used common household objects and cheap basic materials.

It wasn’t long before Owen was contacted again, this time by the mother of a 5 year old boy who was born without fingers on one of his hands. Using an early 1800’s prosthetic as a blueprint he came up with a simple but elegant mechanical design that could work. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, this hand would have to be replaced many times throughout the child’s life. Thinking outside the box, Owen taught himself how to use design software for 3D printers and reached out to a manufacturer who donated 2 of the machines for his use.

Instead of trying to make money off of his designs Owen put all of his data files in the public domain. It wasn’t long before a community grew around adapting these designs to fit other people and building new hands that suited other purposes. This is where the e-NABLE community truly began. This volunteer organization slowly grew until its members numbered in the thousands. As part of their mission these creators reached out to those in need and printed thousands of hands for people all over the world. Because these hands were so easy to redesign and so cheap to produce, many people stared making cool custom builds that let them show off their unique interests and personalities.

And fight crime.


I wonder who his favorite X-men character is.



So how much will one of these fully customized and artisanal prosthetics cost you? Would you believe they’re free? If you’re inclined to make one yourself (or you want to support e-NABLE) the material costs run from $20 to $50 for hands and $50 to $150 for arms. Even if you paid for the materials these prosthetics are on average over 22,000% cheaper than traditional comparative pieces and can be printed in your own home if you own a 3D printer. If you don’t own a 3D printer e-NABLE has resources to help you get access to one. A printer that can produce these prosthetics costs anywhere from $500 to $3,000 but that price will only drop as they become more available. Still, even at $3,000 the price is incredibly low for these kinds of medical expenses. One less money problem to worry about.

This is truly a life-changing idea. Check out the video below to see what I mean.




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