How Two Guys Got Together To Build A New Hand

Neither Richard Van As or Ivan Owen have any experience with prosthetics. In fact, the two men have never even met. But they’ve designed a simple new mechanical hand that could be cheap enough to spread around the world.


When people put their minds to it, anything is possible. Even a new hand.


Last year, a South African named Richard Van As lost four fingers in a woodworking accident. But that was just the start of his troubles. Surgery set him back $20,000–all the money he had–and that didn’t include actually replacing the fingers with prosthetics. That would be an additional $20,000–a prohibitive amount given the current rand-dollar exchange rate.

That was when Van As started to think about building his own hand, and then he came across a video made by Ivan Owen, a designer 10,000 miles away in Washington State. Owen had built a freaky monster hand as part of his costume for a sci-fi convention a few months earlier.

Rich contacted Ivan with an idea: Why not build a hand together?

“Richard is a very quiet guy,” says Owen. “The email I received from him was only three sentences long. It was just a picture of his hand and him saying very matter-of-factly that he was missing fingers and ‘had I considered creating something for finger amputees?'”

The first line of the message read: “Hi. I have seen your hands on YouTube. They are interesting.”

Some might be daunted by the idea of building a hand from scratch. But Owen says his research convinced him he could do it. “I looked at crab legs, and human fingers, and it struck me that when you boil it down, it’s just a system of cables and pulleys,” he says. “I also found a prosthetic hand built by an Australian dentist in 1836, and I thought ‘if a person could do it back then, there had to be a way.'”


Over the last few months, Van As and Owen have worked on a prototype, building separate models out of Meccano and Erector Set. Owen says the toughest challenge is the joints, which have to be small and lightweight, yet tough enough to withstand mechanical forces.

Next month, Owen is traveling to Johannesburg to build an advanced prototype out of titanium. He says it’s going to be interesting to meet his friend face-to-face for the first time. “We’re both really looking forward to it.”

Van As and Owen plan to put up their final specification online, and post how-to-make-it-yourself video tutorials. “If there had already been a design out there, with some instructions, Rich would have built it for himself, and we think there are probably other people out there like him, or people who know people.”

“Another nice thing about this is that after we’ve made our initial design, it can continue to evolve, if others find ways to improve it,” he adds. They’ve posted some early designs here.

Longer term, they hope to build kits, and set up a nonprofit to help amputees around the world. “If we can continue to grow this idea, we’ll have the ability to produce systems for people who don’t have the means or access to produce them themselves.”

Van As and Owen are currently raising $5,000 on Fundly–cash they plan to put towards a milling machine, a 3-D printer, and materials. At the time of writing, they are only half way to their goal–though, in other ways, they’ve already come a long way.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.