International alliance determined to change lives

By Wayne Bryan Published June 29, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Stephen Schoonmaker, right, College of the Ouachitas president, shakes the newly fitted Robohand of Chicago resident Ryan, 8, who was born with no right arm from the elbow down.

Eight-year-old Ryan was the center of attention, although the quiet, shy boy was at the back of the room during a formal news conference at College of the Ouachitas on Wednesday.

The two-year college in Malvern, along with Robohand, a company in South Africa that creates custom mechanical alternatives to standard prosthetics, announced an alliance to prepare and distribute Robohand components worldwide. The parts will be custom-designed and made at COTO’s Robohand Print Farm, considered the world’s largest 3-D printing facility.

An hour before the announcement of the alliance, Ryan, who was born without a right arm, was fitted with an arm and hand by Richard Van As, founder of Robohand, and Jody Callahan, chairman of the Division of Applied Sciences at the college.

“I made the arm Ryan is wearing today while I was in Africa,” Callahan said. “Ryan’s family sent a casting of his limb from Chicago, and we did a remote fitting. He and his parents drove 11 hours yesterday, and that is when I met Ryan for the first time.

“He is wearing the hand now, and I thank him and his family for allowing us to be part of their lives.”

After the announcement, Ryan, too shy to speak, shook hands with Stephen Schoonmaker, president of the college. As the president extended his hand, the boy lifted the gray, black and white plastic arm; his mechanical fingers grasped Schoonmaker’s hand, and Ryan experienced the universal greeting for the first time.

“He is anxious to get back home,” said his mother, Dina, who wrapped Ryan in her arms. “He wants to show the hand off to the other kids. They have heard about it and think it’s cool.”

Schoonmaker, who also traveled to Robohand’s headquarters in Johannesburg, South Africa, learned to design and assemble the mechanical hands. He has called the device “the most life-altering application of 3-D printing technology” that he has seen.

Looking over the backup arm that was designed for Ryan, the mechanical device for the 8-year-old is just over a foot long. Light plastic and nylon cords are threaded through the fingers and go around to the bottom of the arm and attach to the part of the device that Ryan slips over his limb.

With a downward motion of his limb, the fingers and thumb of the device close and open. The Robohand is not designed to appear as a natural hand. Van As made a point in his discussion of the device that it is not a prosthetic.

“It is complex, but not complicated, made of nontoxic plastic and an open-shell design that can breathe so no bacteria can cause infections, and surgical-steel hardware,” he said. “It is a tool, a mechanical device.”

In 2011, Van As lost the fingers of his right hand in a woodworking accident. After looking at existing prosthetic, he decided to build his own hand. Having created his hand, he said, it was possible to make the plastic pieces with a 3-D printer; then almost anyone could assemble the device following video instructions. He began to receive requests to make the hands for others.

“I thought I would make around 100 hands and then disappear,” Van As said in Malvern on Wednesday. “We have now made 800 hands, and about 140 more have been made by different individuals.”

College of the Ouachitas became involved with 3-D printers when the machines were introduced as part of the school’s Project Lead the Way, a pre-engineering program at the community college, approved in 2013.

In supplying the lab, we had some funding available to get a 3-D printer,” Schoonmaker said. “It was Jody’s idea to get enough printers to teach the technology, and I gravitated toward the idea.”

Callahan and Schoonmaker contacted a manufacturer of printers, and with the creation of curriculum for training printer operators and a certification program for those skills, the college was able to acquire 50 MakerBot Replicator 2 printers and six digitizers — 3-D scanners that turn any object placed on the scanner turntable into a digital file.

The relationship between College of the Ouachitas and Robohand formed earlier this year when Callahan contacted the South African company.

“I had seen a video about Robohand and how they help kids in Africa,” Callahan said. “I have a nephew that had an amputation, and I know the trouble and expense the family had, so [Robohand] made sense to me.”

Van As said the motto of Robohand is “enable one — enable many.” Callahan said that philosophy fits the plans for the school’s use of the 3-D printers.

“What does the student get from the program?” Callahan asked rhetorically. “We were looking for an application that would empower the students so they could empower themselves, and then empower others. The students’ capstone project would be to build a hand or arm so the student could change another life, and their own as well, by creating and fitting someone’s new hand.”

Schoonmaker said benefiting others by making the articulated limbs is in keeping with the mission of the College of the Ouachitas to “engage, educate and empower everyone.”

Callahan and Schoonmaker traveled to Robohand headquarters in May to establish the strategic alliance with Van As and his company and to learn more about the production of mechanical fingers, hands and arms by 3-D printing. Then they fit children with the hands.

“I thought I would be ready for the emotional ownership involved in fitting a hand,” Callahan said. “I was not prepared for the attachment when I fit a hand for a 2-year-old in Johannesburg. It was the smallest and youngest person ever fitted by the company.”

Van As and Callahan are co-authoring the 3-D-printing curriculum that will be used at the Robohand Print Farm at COTO. When the print farm has open time, businesses and the public can pay to have 3-D prints created. Those jobs will help sustain the printing lab.

Schoonmaker said the college and Robohand will split the income of the print farm, but during the announcement Wednesday, Van As said half of the revenue to be received by Robohand from the plant will be returned to the College of the Ouachitas Foundation. Schoonmaker told the Tri-Lakes Edition the money will go into the general college fund.

The COTO president said that even before the announcement of the alliance with Robohand, people at the college and in the community had begun raising money to purchase the devices for people in need. Schoonmaker said employees and former employees of the college have joined with churches, civic organizations and individuals in the Malvern community to raise funds to purchase the hands.

Van As said he recently designed a leg using the Robohand principles, and it is undergoing testing.

“I am also working on an anatomically powered walker,” he said. “We are looking at adding motors, and I want to one day develop an exoskeleton for paraplegics.”

Schoonmaker said the use of 3-D printing is an evolving technology.

“Think about the fuzzy pictures of the first black-and-white TVs, and see what we have today,” he said. “This is just the beginning.”

For more information about the Robohand 3-D Print Farm at the College of the Ouachitas, email

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or at

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or

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