By Carolyn Sun
Nine-year-old Matthew is the owner of a brightly-colored prosthetic Robohand that was created several months ago in the MakerSpace of the Johnson County Library in Overland Park, KS. Matthew, who is adopted, was born with partial fingers on his right hand due to a birth condition called limb difference.
He’d always been a self-confident kid, according to his mother, Jennifer, whose father had been born with the same condition. But, after they moved to Miami County, KS, two years ago, Matthew endured the spotlight of being the new kid as well as relentless questions about his hand from classmates.
“Social stigma was starting to creep in on him,” she says.
However, Matthew didn’t want a commercial prosthetic hand, which can cost up to $18,000. Even with insurance, Jennifer, a single mother of three children, could not afford it.
The genesis of Matthew’s prosthetic hand came from one of Matthew’s teachers who’d sent Jennifer a link to Robohand, a cost-effective model of a prosthetic hand co-created by South African Richard Van As, who’d lost his own fingers in a workshop accident, and theatrical artist, Ivan Owen back in November 2012. A 3-D printer version was designed in January 2013 with how-to instructions available online.
When Matthew first saw photos of the Robohand, “He was immediately excited, says his mom. “I think it was the fact it was colored and looked like something that could be made from LEGOs.”
The Johnson County’s Central Resource Library boasts a 3-D MakerBot printer in its MakerSpace located right next to the library’s information services desk. The MakerSpace opened last March, and in addition to the MakerBot, contains Apple desktops and audio and digital recording equipment. On the library’s MakerSpace website, the suggested projects for MakerSpace are diverse and DIY, from websites and musical recordings to shower curtain rings and chess pieces.
When Matthew’s mom went to work studying the prosthetic hand design, she soon realized it was beyond her skills. She reached out to 16-year-old Mason Wilde, a family friend’s son who’d helped her eldest son with computer programs in the past and had, last year, built a computer from scratch.
Mason, a student at Louisburg (KS) High School, had coincidentally been sitting out football season due to a concussion and had been encouraged by his doctor to “seek enrichment—and the opportunity to enrich others—outside of football” according to his mother, Kelly Wilde.
“I’ve always been fascinated by machines and engineering feats,” he says, “so when I was given the opportunity to work with a 3-D printer and build a hand, all while helping a family friend, I jumped on it.”
All in all, the Robohand project took Mason five hours of labor over a span of three weeks.
Meredith Nelson,a reference librarian at Johnson County’s Central Resource Library, has been teaching introductory MakerBot classes (on alternating Mondays and Wednesdays) since the MakerSpace opened last March. She teaches the basics of how the MakerBot works, how to download and slice a file, and how to 3-D print.
Nelson, a self-proclaimed “Maker-Librarian,” had no prior experience with 3-D printing before the MakerBot’s arrival. She mastered it through trial-and-error.
“I took [the printer] apart about 75,961 times,” she says, “The first time it jams, you freak out and don’t know how or where to open everything. After that, you just roll your eyes and do it.”
Nelson says MakerSpace and its advanced equipment and skills software has attracted new patrons to the library who’d previously thought they had little use for it.
“Many people, who only saw the library as a place for books or quiet study, have realized we can be more.”
At present, Matthew is able to pick up a pencil and is working on writing legibly. He refers to his hand as “the future.”
“The main thing that Matthew can do with the hand is be a center of attention for a cool thing,” says his mom, “not a what-happened-to-your hand thing.”
Mason, who plans on pursuing mechanical engineering career in the future, intends to make more Robohands for Matthew as he grows.
Carolyn Sun is a former public school teacher and freelance reporter who covers gender equality and child labor.