A new way of making mobility aids means the devices are now more affordable for those in need.

Mat Bowtell, Bernie Craven and Sean Teer are among the 3D designers using household recyclables to print hands and other body parts.

Mr Bowtell is the founder of the not-for-profit organisation Free 3D Hands. He says traditional appliances are notoriously inaccessible because they can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

“The main issues are the high cost of [materials] and the lack of a skilled workforce in remote or over-populated areas of the world,” he said.

The World Health Organisation predicts the number of people needing assistive devices will rise from one to two million by 2030. But currently, only one in 10 can access them.

Mr Bowtell was named Victoria’s Local Hero of the Year in 2018 after using 3D printers to make functional hands and fingers for disabled children.

After taking a redundancy from Toyota, he initially used his pay-out to set up his printing facility, and then went without a wage for two years. Crowdfunding later allowed him to expand.

“It was a big challenge mentally to eliminate the temptation of money. I love what I do so much that I am willing to do it for free.

“It will get to a point in time when I will need to draw a wage. So, I hope to seek corporate sponsorship. That means every cent donated to the charity would go towards providing assistive devices.”

Not only are the hands he makes free, he also pays the postage to ship them globally. He even provides assembly manuals to help people make their own.

Bernie Craven, a former hairdresser, is the owner of waste repurposing company Waste Free Systems.  He developed a passion for environmentally friendly solutions when he realised that 50 per cent of recycling waste, still ends up in landfill.

That’s when he decided to recycle shampoo bottles to print prosthetics.

 “I have real issues with sending waste overseas to be dealt with,” he said. “[After] research, I found a not-for-profit group, e-NABLE, which provides kids with 3D printed prosthetics from generic, open-sourced designs, and I thought ‘why couldn’t we do that with waste plastic’?”

Sophie Ritchie, Social Impact Manager at Rapido Social, agrees; “Plastics are a massive issue for the environment and society at large. Bernie describes the amputee community as the ‘silent community’. There are a lot of people living out in Australia without access to prosthetics because they’re so expensive. Using this waste plastic to then make those essentials available to people who need them, is a very compelling cause.”

Like Mat Bowtell, Mr Craven supplies prosthetics to children under the age of 18, for free. He’s currently working with Haley Wright, 12, and Connor Wyvill, 11, who were born without a part of their left forearm and hand.

“It’s been interesting working with them,” he said. “Their other senses and physical attributes are probably better than most people. And they’re also totally different people in the way they react to things. So you have to learn to accommodate both.”

Sean Teer is the director of Envision, a Victorian not-for-profit organisation that started recycling bottle caps 18 months ago – also with the intention of printing mechanical aids for children. Its volunteers collected over five million bottle caps.

Mr Teer says the cost of making a 3D printed hand can be measured only in time.

“It takes about 40 hours inclusive of printing, which you can leave overnight without waiting around.”

Mr Teer approximates a hand would cost around one to three thousand dollars; “that’s significantly cheaper than normal ones.”

HDPE 2 is the most used plastic, globally. It is found in many home products such as shampoo bottles, drain pipes and storage containers.

But it is hard to print. The chemical makeup of HDPE 2 products can vary, which is why it is difficult to standardise settings.

Despite the success of its collection phase, separating millions of caps proved tedious, and reconfiguring the HDPE and LDPE plastic become extremely difficult. So the Envision Hands project was discontinued.
A statement on its website now points to “other organisations providing high-quality mobility aids made from other forms of plastic, who continue to provide excellent service to those in need in the community.”

Sean Teer joins Bernie Craven in hoping to see a move towards the printing of bionic arms.

“The bionic ones are sensor activated, using muscles to activate fingers,” Mr Craven said.

“That’s really where I want to go with it. But I want to be able to use recycled plastic to actually create them. Even though I’m not a designer, I know exactly what I want to do.”

Kate Leone, an engineer at the University of Technology Sydney’s Rapido Social, believes this is possible if the shell was printed and the motorised parts were developed, separately.

Mr Craven is now working with Rapido Social to make this possible.

“The biggest problem Bernie experiences is the shrinkage,” Ms Leone explains. “Some parts might not fit together properly.”

“If Bernie sends me a few different samples of filament, we’ll experiment [to see] whether the colour or labels of the bottle affects the print. I’ll print a whole bunch of different cubes with different print settings, test it for shrinkage, and just process all that data [to] find… the best settings.”

HDPE 2 filament (Photo: Nisha Sreenivasan)

Despite their good intentions, these 3D printers have faced heavy criticism.

A spokesperson from the Australian Orthotic Prosthetic Association (AOPA) said that mechanics need to be compliant with the Therapeutic Goods Act and National Code of Conduct for Healthcare Workers.

“AOPA does not support unqualified hobbyists fitting medical devices,” they said.

Mr Bowtell has also faced challenges from traditional designers.

“We recently were challenged by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), [which said] that our [prosthetics] were considered unregistered medical devices. We were ordered to cease supply and advertising. Our lawyers challenged this, stating that we supply assistive devices, not medical devices.”

The argument succeeded, with the TGA responding that their devices fit the definition of excluded goods.

“This was a huge relief and reassurance that we are doing the right thing. We hope to help change the culture of the industry, rather than disrupt it.”

Sean Teer says it is important not to mistake these creations for traditional prosthetics.

“The first thing we advise parents to do is go seek medical help. It’s not a prosthetic, it’s a mobility aid. It’s there to support basic tasks like picking up a ball or riding a bike. A lot of time they (children) wear it just to go out with their friends – just to feel normal.”

“There’s definitely a bit of a difference,” Kate Leone said. “3D printed prosthetics have to be cheap and accessible – [made with]… things people can source themselves.

“The companies that spend a lot of money on research and development, tend to use a lot of bespoke parts, which are not so accessible to the public. But the impact of each is different.”

The main benefit of these mobility aids, is the psychological well-being that comes from greater accessibility.

“Especially in third world countries, people stare at you for being different and treat you different,” Mr Teer said.

“This gives them something to normalise and that’s very important.”

“The value to these kids is the confidence that they gain. Haley’s and Connor’s confidence has really risen.”

— Bernie Craven

“If we charged $10 for one of our devices, to me it would only be worth $10. But when you give it to somebody for free, without the expectation of a reward, it becomes priceless. To see kids smiling, gaining confidence and trying new things brings so much joy and satisfaction.”

— Mat Bowtell

“When they first get the devices it’s fantastic and seeing that is fantastic. You can’t replicate what it means to them and the family.”

— Sean Teer

Mat Bowtell added: “People with limb differences have been seen to be disabled, needing to be fixed. We see people with limb differences as having a different ability. We empower communities through removing restrictions in accessing these devices. I call this the social inclusion model.”

—  Nisha Sreenivasan