The Journey

On the 7th May 2013 it will be two years since Richard had his accident where he cut off his fingers on his right hand. This tragedy has had such a big impact on our lives and so much has transpired in these two years. Very positive things have happened as well as a few negative things but the most important thing that sticks with me is that Richard gets up every day and takes on whatever challenges lie ahead. He is positive, keeps his sense of humour, loses his temper, gets frustrated, deals with constant pain, innovates and brainstorms, is forever giving of himself and is a never ending ball of fire and energy.

To a lot of people, when you hear that someone has had a tragic accident the magnitude of how their lives change does not really impact you. For those that still have both their hands, there is no way to imagine what this handicap means. Richard became an instant left hander. His left hand had to become a lot more clever very quickly. Can you brush your teeth with your non dominant hand? Can you squeeze out a face cloth with only one hand and a thumb? Can you use a can opener with only one hand? Can you hammer something properly without hurting yourself when you use your non dominant hand? Would you be able to drive with your legs so you can change gears with only one hand? Can you put your under clothes on with only one hand? Can you cut up the meat on your plate with only one hand? Would you be able to use your mouse with your other hand? Could you still use a drill, saw, screwdriver or any machinery with one hand? Have you tried to put your socks on or button up your shirt with one hand?

I know someone that can do all those things and more, because he would not allow those things to beat him.

When I first wrote up my story a few months after the accident, it was still very raw. I was still very angry and frustrated. I was also excited as Richard had met Ivan on line and they were collaborating on creating a replacement finger for Richard. I left off my last update with us raising funds to get Ivan to South Africa so the two men could complete the mechanical finger that Richard had started.<

Ivan’s wife Jen had started a blog to document everything as we went. We had a fund raising site up and running and we were getting the word out to all communities of the great plans Ivan and Richard had for finger amputees. Fast forward to September 2012. The Robohand name was officially born. We had just started our Facebook page and were updating almost daily on what transpired at various hours of various days and nights. With the time difference between Bellingham and Johannesburg Richard sometimes did not sleep for 36 hours. Working on the design and reengineering parts. Finding different ways of doing things; using different materials. It was a time of great excitement and chaos in our home.

With all our friends promoting our Facebook page a friend of a nephew contacted Richard as her son had been born with no fingers and she was intrigued by what these two men were doing, and was there any way that they could help her son. Wow that was a spanner in the works. From creating one finger to a whole hand!

Suddenly a new project was born. It was more long distance collaboration and many more days of no sleep. After Richard and Ivan had settled on a design they thought would work, Ivan created four aluminum fingers for little Liam. They were not sure yet how they were going to fit it to the boy or what it would look like complete but the mechanical fingers were all together and ready.

After 10 long months and thanks to the generosity of Richard’s friend Mark, who donated his voyager miles, Ivan got to fly to SA in November of 2012, and he and Richard met in person. It was wonderful to meet Ivan at the airport and welcome him to SA and into our home. It felt like we had known him forever. They had a very short 4 days together so they needed to make every second count. Not much sleep was had. Unfortunately I still had to work every day so did not get to experience these two minds together. But Jen and I chatted on line every day. Her enthusiasm and support was fabulous. She missed her husband (they had never really been apart – ever) and their kids missed him too. So I would give her as much news as I could. Jen and Ivan Skyped every day; sometimes twice, depending on the time difference and if the boys bothered to sleep.

Before Ivan arrived Richard had been in contact with one of the Universities who have amazing 3D printers and awesome technology and Ivan had been in contact with MakerBot in the USA regarding their 3D printing capabilities. The boys were looking to find a cheaper way of prototyping and this seemed to be it. If we could gather enough funding we were looking to purchase a 3D printer.

While Ivan was in SA Richard took him through to the University to go and meet the people and discuss the idea of 3D printing this hand and the gauntlet for the Robofinger in this fancy plastic. Unfortunately I was not able to attend but apparently the Professor was very enthusiastic and welcomed the opportunity to get on board. Richard also arranged for the Popular Mechanic magazine to spend the day with them and document the Robohand Journey (you may have seen the article in the Feb 13 edition). Although the purpose of Ivan’s visit was to complete the Robofinger together, Ivan concentrated on Liam’s hand and Richard made a breakthrough by creating a cam for the Robofinger and polishing the design using inexpensive materials from the hardware store.

Liam and his family arrived for the fitting of the Robohand. Richard had already been experimenting with Ortho plastic for his own design and that seemed like a good idea to use to fit the Robohand. Lots of creative designing and strapping with poppers, cable pulleys etc and the hand was on. The best part of that very stressful day was when Liam shouted out “It copies me!” It was priceless!

Ivan left our South African shores for his homeland and made further contact with MakerBot. After they saw what it was that Ivan and Richard wanted to do, which was create a printable hand that could be assembled by the wearer, they donated us TWO Replicator 2 3D printers. What a win!

Ivan received his printer first, in December 2012 and immediately started scripting Liam’s hand in Openscad which is then put into Makerware and then the Replicator 2 prints the hand in PLA. Many designs went back and forth between the oceans and the ABS Robohand was born. Richard received his Replicator 2 printer in January of 2013 and immediately printed out the scripted hand to see what it looked like and how it would function. Prototyping just became that much quicker with Richard sending his changes and ideas to Ivan during the day while the USA was sleeping and Ivan would work his magic and make those changes into tangible files that he sent back while SA was sleeping. Rich would then print it out when he got up and put it all together and rework the design. It was amazing to watch this scenario unfold.

Soon Richard was ready for Liam to return to have his new ABS Robohand fitted. This was the most amazing thing that children would be able to get mechanical hands to aid them in their daily lives. And it’s something that can be traded in as the child grows. Spending time with Liam’s Mom and Dad and hearing how he was trying to do different things with his Robohand was a very emotional time for me. My heart goes out to all these families and I wish we could help everybody.

Richard spent some more time refining the ABS Robohand adding rubberizing on the finger tips and non slip paper on the palm. He and his OT figured out a new way to do the hand cap and gauntlet that the hand attaches to and so Liam came back for his third and final Robohand. There are some amazing videos out there of Liam now using his hand.

Since Liam’s story we have helped another two families’ children with Robohand’s. It’s very emotional to watch these kids use their hand for the very first time. Sometimes I wish I could just switch my heart off for a while. Listening to the parent’s stories and their determination to try and help their children and give them the best opportunities like “normal” children is truly inspiring.

Having spent the last three months concentrating on the ABS hands Richard and I had many long talks about the original intent of Robohand and that was creating the Robofinger. Thee finger to help the tradesman get back to work. We felt that the original intent had been overshadowed by the ABS hand and we wanted to get back to creating the Robofinger.

After the Popular Mechanics SA article written by Sean, Richard was contacted by several people that offered their help. Rich took up the offer of help from a CNC machining company in Pretoria and teamed up with Leon to manufacture the Robofinger. Richard had sent Leon all his designs that he had completed when Ivan was in SA and Leon was so impressed that he jumped on board to put this finger into production. He offered us his company machinery at no cost; he created the machine blocks at no cost to us and ordered the material at no cost to us. At this current moment the finger is complete and is being anodized. It will then be assembled as a DIY kit for the wearer. Leon works in a computer program that simply mirrors the original design so now we also have left hand Robofinger, to ensure that all tradesmen will be benefit if they injured their left hand.

When I got home one day after work Richard had a very shiny finger lying on his workbench. I was immediately attracted to it as it looked beautiful and I wanted to jump up and down I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to share the news with the world.

In life, some friendships last forever and some not. Unfortunately the chapter with Ivan and Jen has come to a close. I cannot speculate as to the reasons but team Owen have taken a different direction and path and removed themselves from the Robohand family. It is very sad for me to no longer think of them as part of my family and I get very teary when I think how well Ivan and Richard collaborated together and that will be no more.

But looking onwards and upwards, there are many exciting things in the pipeline.