Additive Manufacturing for Everyman

3D printing technology helps ordinary people take innovation beyond the “I’ve got an idea” stage. Good ideas are like runaway trains. They keep you up at night. They develop to a point where they won’t leave you alone. But so often, turning an idea into its manifested counterpart in the real world never happens. The investment is out of reach, the learning curve is steep and forget about building a prototype. Over time, ideas get pushed to the side and eventually dissolve into this great idea you once had.

3D Printing Technology: Making the Impossible Possible

3D printed prosthetic limbs

Richard Van As makes 3D printed prosthetic limbs Picture: Photo/Denis Farrell Source: AP

But now that 3D printing technology has become more available to the masses, many individuals with great ideas are getting the chance to prove them out. One such story is that of a South African carpenter named Richard Van As. After losing four fingers in a circular saw accident, Van As was ‘dogged’ by an idea. He describes the experience like this: “After my accident, I was in pain, but wouldn’t take painkillers. I barely slept, and the more pain I had the more ideas I got,” he said. “Sometimes you have to chop fingers off to start thinking.” Inspired by an online video about a hand created for a costume in a theater production, Van As decided to use 3D printing technology to make functioning fingers for himself.

His experiment was a success. So much so that he started making hands for other people—particularly children who suffered from Amniotic Band Syndrome, whereby the circulation to one or more appendages is cut off in the womb, resulting in shortened limbs. Dubbed ‘Robohands,’ Van As’ invention enables people with malformed limbs to close mechanical fingers around objects and manipulate these objects in ways that were impossible before. And as if that weren’t enough, Van As is able to deliver a Robohand to a family in need for roughly two thousand dollars, a far cry from the oft-times prohibitive $10,000 to $15,000 a below-the-elbow prosthetic can cost.

3D Printing Technology: The Father of Invention

Chuck/Charles Hull

Chuck Hull, the father of 3D printing technology, image by The Guardian

True to the spirit of 3D printing technology, 3D printers themselves were the result of an engineer who was frustrated by something. Chuck Hull, now known as the father of 3D printing, was annoyed by how long it took to make plastic parts for prototypes. In 1986, Hull, who went on to found 3D Systems, patented his system of layering materials to more rapidly build parts. Now 75 years old, Hull predicted years ago that it would take at least this long for his invention to enter into the mainstream. Turns out he was right. Still passionate about 3D printing technology and its place in the world, Hull tried to retire but couldn’t stay away. He now serves as Chief Technology Officer at 3D Systems.

For inventors, the 21st century is a good time to be alive. Not only do rapidly advancing technologies spark new ideas on a daily basis, but thanks to early pioneers like Chuck Hull, we are now able to bring many of them to fruition.

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