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Can We Print A Better World?

The 3D-printed prosthetic Raptor Hand Reloaded can be printed anywhere in the world for less than 100 euros. It was developed by a global online community, a network of volunteer developers, and producers pointing the way toward the future.

In the late 1980s, philosopher Vilém Flusser wrote that the communication systems of the future will consist of networks, into which people from all around the world will feed information to assemble into collective knowledge.1 The society of the future will be part of a web that stores and produces information. At the time, that sounded no less unfathomable and futuristic than the thoughts of the philosopher Frithjof Bergmann 25 years later. In the 2000s he developed the concept of “High Tech Self Providing” (HTSP) as part of a new form of industry, production and labor.2 A central role is played by so-called “fabricators” or “fabbers,” which will enable people to have greater long-term independence from industry and the traditional production chain. Fabbers are devices that can form real objects out of any digital CAD data. Their introduction, according to Bergmann, could change the world in the same way as the spread of personal computers has. Everyday necessities could thus be produced locally, large chains of production and the conventional industrial division of labor would become less important.

© Illustration by Harry Campbell


1    Vilém Flusser, Kommunikologie weiter denken. Die "Bochumer Vorlesungen," (Frankfurt am Main, 2009).


2    Frithjof Bergmann, Neue Arbeit, Neue Kultur, (Freiburg, 2004).

In the meantime, such futuristic fantasies have become reality. Today there are approximately 18,000 fabricators worldwide. They are 3D printers that can produce three-dimensional objects from different materials. What’s more—such as with the 3D printer “RepRap”—they can reproduce themselves: they can produce all the important parts that make up the machine itself. The data required for the three-dimensional prints are not only developed by commercially oriented companies, but also by noncommercial communities. These communities are informal groups of people who are scattered across the globe and often do not even know each other personally, yet are connected via the Internet. In this way, people around the world share their ideas, creativity, and inventions freely and for free among themselves. Together, they produce goods and knowledge and thus form structures for decentralized production. The basis for this form of cooperation is a different understanding of authorship. Instead of withholding knowledge for private use, it is shared with others. Specifically, this means that works that are normally protected by copyright are published under a Creative Commons license. This allows them to be copied, modified, and distributed.

Inspired by this, “maker culture” has emerged over the past decade. “Maker” is the title adopted by those who enthusiastically promote the aim of small-scale production with fabricators.3 Using currently available techniques, they are looking for new, inexpensive do-it-yourself solutions to existing problems. The designs that are created in 3D modeling software and circulate in virtual space can be transferred to the real world at the press of a button. It’s not even necessary for everyone to have a 3D printer at home. There are now Makerspaces or FabLabs—rooms equipped with printers, machines, and tools, in which activists discuss and implement projects. In many cities there are also 3D printing cafés that offer such services for consumers. Many makers see these production forms as a desirable future and as a way toward a better and fairer society. In 2014, even United States President Barack Obama called for the United States to become a “nation of makers.”4


3    Chris Anderson, Makers. Das Internet der Dinge: die nächste industrielle Revolution, (Munich, 2013).


4    Proclamation of the US-President on the "National Day of Making" on June 17, 2014, (accessed September 15, 2015).

The FabLabs Network: more than 500 labs across the world.
© Mapping by onlab

The e-Nable Community

Maker culture is providing new opportunities in healthcare design as well—design that focuses on health as well as the problems of people with disabilities and the ill. Since 2013 a number of activist groups are trying to use 3D printers to enable access to affordable prosthetic devices. One of the first prosthesis to result from 3D printing was the Robohand. It was developed by the South African master carpenter Richard van As and the American designer Ivan Owen. Van As, who lost several fingers in an accident at work, sought a designer to create a new prosthesis. He came across a video of Owen on the Internet and contacted him. After several months of collaborative development work, Robohand was finished. The print data are freely available on the Internet, so basically anyone can produce a Robohand using a 3D printer. The total cost for the Robohand is estimated at approximately 130 euros. This allows people who cannot afford conventional prostheses, which usually cost more than 5,000 euros, to have an access to artificial hands.

When this first 3D printing prosthesis was presented, other project groups were already working on similar projects around the world. The blog by Jon Schull, professor of Information Technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, is the hub of the e-Nable Community network. Meanwhile, the network consists of several thousand volunteers. In 40 countries, 1,500 people in need have been helped by the volunteers of this network with 3D printed prosthetic hands. The network is supported by the e-Nable Community Foundation, which was established in the United States in 2015, as well as other companies that want to shape the future. For example, Google donated 600,000 dollars in May 2015.

The Raptor Hand Reloaded was published under a Creative Commons license. Here, the “author” or “inventor” retains no special rights – but rather makes rights and designs available.

The Raptor Hand

The e-Nable community began working on the Raptor Hand in 2014. It published the design under a Creative Commons license according to which the “author” or “inventor” retains no special rights, but rather makes them generally available. The Raptor Hand is meant to be as easy as possible a prosthesis: easy to print, easy to assemble, easy to repair, and easy to further develop.

Therefore, its function is simple: grasping. It is intended for people who are missing fingers, but still have a functioning wrist. The prosthesis is fixed to the forearm above the wrist and parts of the palm using Velcro. Elastic strings return the prosthesis to its original position with the fingers extended. When the prosthesis is folded downward over the wrist, nonelastic strings move the artificial fingers inward to perform a gripping movement. If the wrist is moved upward again, the grip releases.

Just a few months after the first model appeared, the successor model, the Raptor Hand Reloaded, was already presented. This version is characterized by the fact that the 3D model has been remodeled in a free CAD program called 360 Fusion. This means that changes to the template can also be carried out by people who cannot afford to purchase a commercial CAD program. The barrier for contributions of engineers, designers, and makers is therefore lowered once again.

The Raptor Hand is a complex design object, not only due to its materiality and form, but also because of the way it can be produced, how it was developed, and how it will be made available worldwide. Its beauty lies less on the surface, not in the exterior, not based on sculptural aspects. Its beauty lies in its use—in the vitality and empowerment it offers to its users. It stands for a great promise; that the facilitation offered by good design is also made accessible to those who need it most.

The Raptor Hand is not the only prosthetic hand that is offered by the e-Nable Community and printed anywhere in the world. Another model, with a name like something from a science fiction movie, is the Cyborg Beast. The prosthesis was developed by Jorge Zuniga and the 3D Research & Design Group that he heads at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. The research team is composed of scientists from different institutions at the university. Although the hand was initially developed for the care of children in the United States, it is now one of the most widely used low-cost prostheses.

© Illutration by Harry Campbell

Who Benefits From These New Opportunities?

So far, in particular, the users of printed hands have been children. Because they are growing and therefore frequently need new prostheses, 3D printed hands are a viable alternative to professional prostheses that cost several thousand euros. Especially for families without health insurance, these are unaffordable.

Worldwide, the media quickly became aware of the new possibilities of this revolution in the field of prosthetics. The New York Times, for example, reported on Dawson, a 13-year-old who was born without fingers on his left hand. His family could not afford a high-tech prosthesis. Through the e-Nable Community they learned of the opportunity to print prostheses themselves. Since then, Dawson is the proud owner of a Cyborg Beast. This model is especially popular among children. The Cyborg Beast does not try to look like a natural hand, but is, in Dawson’s words, a “superhero hand” that looks like a body part of an action figure from the science fiction comic and film The Transformers. Dawson is not the only child whose story became known. The French media reported on the six-year-old Maxence, who printed his Cyborg Beast in bright orange and yellow. It now enables him to hold onto the swings with both hands.

But hands for kids in bright colors are not the only possible application of 3D printed prostheses. They are also used in the crisis and war zones of the world. They are often the only way for destitute people who have lost body parts to regain physical abilities. Refugees Open Ware (ROW) has been active in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan since summer of 2014. Currently more than 80,000 Syrian refugees live there. ROW is a cooperative venture for humanitarian innovations that connect various organs of the humanitarian sector. Currently, they are installing a FabLab in Zaatari, so that camp residents can provide themselves with prostheses as well as other everyday items.

Thus, the mechanical hands from the 3D printer are a further step toward global empowerment. The 3D modeled templates of all kinds of things that are shared for free on the Internet, as well as the new sharing economy and maker culture promise a more cooperative world. It is up to society whether they fulfill this promise in the future and make sensible use of these opportunities. Because after all, the printers not only can print prostheses, tools, utensils, or replacement parts for defective equipment or even themselves, but also weapons, for instance. It should not be forgotten that one of the first 3D models that was freely available on the Internet was a gun. Modern technologies have inherent risks and must be used responsibly. Prostheses are an example of an intelligent use. They show that the 3D printing can help make the world a more sustainable and fairer place. Although a better world cannot simply be printed, 3D printing can help solve some of the world’s most pressing issues.

Jens-Uwe Fischer (born in 1977), Benjamin Kasten (born in 1980), and Mara Recklies (born in 1983) are part of the On Display editorial team.