Meet the RoboBEAST from South Africa

Imagine being able to print a functioning prosthetic hand or arm, with almost no technical knowledge and at a fraction of what it would normally cost, for someone who has had theirs amputated.

Now imagine enabling that person to print prostheses for others who were either born without, or lost hands or arms in a tragic event that changed their lives forever.

That is the dream behind the latest 3D printing project of House4hack and Robohand – RoboBEAST, a 3D printer for ordinary, non-technical people that will let them easily print Robohands to any scale.

The Robohand project was founded by Richard van As, who said he was inspired to use 3D printing technology to make hands when an accident in 2011 cost him half the fingers on his primary hand.

3D printing at sub-industrial scale is still largely the exclusive domain of hobbyists; “hackers” with the skill and patience to tweak fiddly 3D printers until they do their bidding.

While there are a few projects underway (and even some printers on the market) to make 3D printing more “mainstream”, some tweaking and specialist knowledge is often still needed to produce working prints.

The RoboBEAST aims to do away with this tinkering.

Its software only requires a user to select what type of hand they are making, and input a single measurement. From there, the size of each of the components is derived using the human hand’s natural proportions, and printed with plastic.

Using a number of open source technologies, House4hack founding member, Schalk Heunis said they developed a wizard-type interface for the RoboBEAST that effectively asks users a series of questions about the hand they wish to print:

Is it a left or right hand? Where is the arm or hand amputated? How wide is the patient’s knuckle block?

Making the printer software easy to use and error-tolerant was only part of the challenge, however.

Richard van As at work on RoboBEAST
Richard van As at work on RoboBEAST

Van As explained that, after Not Impossible Labs took his design and a few 3D printers to South Sudan, it became apparent that a far hardier device was needed.

The hardware and software was designed so the RoboBEAST could still produce accurate prints even when it isn’t on a level surface.

For those who know a little about 3D printing, Robohand’s demonstration – where they pick up one end of the printer and set it down less-than-gently – was seriously impressive.

Van As also explained that in most cases when a 3D printer loses power, you lose your print. It takes the RoboBEAST about 5 hours to print a single adult hand, so it is designed to operate on battery power for 5 hours.

As for the price? While RoboBEAST has not gone into production (yet), Van As said that he is aiming to get the price down to R25,000.

It sounds expensive, but as non-hobbyist 3D printers go it’s actually not bad. Van As also said his intention isn’t to make money from Robohand or RoboBEAST.

Like his Robohand design, he said the design for the RoboBEAST is available under an open license. If there are ever any profits from his projects, Van As said that they will go back into Robohand and towards employing people who have lost limbs.

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Meet the RoboBEAST from South Africa