Living Life in 3D
27 February 2018 at 8:54 am
Westpac Social Change Fellow and former Toyota engineer Mathew Bowtell talks to Pro Bono News about why he chose to design prosthetic devices for those who can’t afford them and what it was like seeing his friend play the piano for the first time in a decade using a finger he had printed for him.
You can make real positive change in other people’s lives and you don’t have to quit your day job to do it, according to the man behind a revolutionary finger prosthetic that has been designed to be accessible to anybody on the planet, for free.
Mathew Bowtell is a Melbourne-based engineer who uses his own skill, time, and funds to design open-source prosthetic devices for those who can’t afford them.
By using 3D printing technology Bowtell is able to make customisable, scalable devices at a fraction of the cost of typical prosthetic devices.
Rather than tens of thousands of dollars, his so-called “Kinetic Fingers” can be made for less than $1 in materials, while a full hand costs about $20 to manufacture.
His hope is to raise awareness on the issue surrounding people being born with limb differences not being eligible for prosthetic devices and he wants parents to know their children have options other than invasive surgery.
According to Bowtell, he planted the seed for the idea when he was still at university.
“I was studying engineering at Monash University and they sent me on a scholarship over to study engineering in Japan, to do mechatronics,” he tells Pro Bono News.
“I was involved in trying on a $1 million bionic arm. And this arm was just amazing. It could read the muscle signals coming through your arm and you could open and close the fingers.
“But I thought, that is wonderful and all, but who is ever going to be able to afford something like this. Even if you brought that cost from $1 million down to $100,000, down to $10,000, down to $1,000, it was still not going to be accessible to the majority of people on this planet.
“So I planted that seed in my mind.”
What started as the seed of an idea, took shape years later after Bowtell was retrenched from Toyota.
“It was a real turning point in my life when I was an engineer at Toyota, and they announced that automotive manufacturing would come to a close in October 2017,” he says.
“This was back in 2014, so they gave us about four years notice, and I really used that opportunity to look myself and sort of think: ‘What was I put here to do, using the skills and experiences that I have had?’ And that was what I came up with.
“To try and bring that cost down for bionic arms and prosthetics to make them more accessible to people all around the world.”
Bowtell spent $5,000 of his own money to buy a 3D printer and materials to start working as a volunteer in his spare time to make free 3D printed prosthetics.
“It was something that I really just started very small, I thought let’s just reach out and help one person to see how we go,” he says.
“I bought the 3D printer and some software and a scanner, and that sort of thing. And for me, the first one that I made was to really make a negative situation, of being told you are going to lose your job, into something to have a positive focus in my life.”
But Bowtell says helping people became addictive.
“I made this first hand for a kid in New South Wales, and just to see the photos, and the story that came when he received his hand, and he walked hand in hand with his new 3D printed hand that I had made him, with his father into his mother’s workplace and literally brought the whole place to tears. That really just showed me what impact I can have, from not much effort at all really, it was just sharing a little bit of love and compassion, and a little bit of the skills that I have and it really made a massive impact in this kids life and it became addictive,” he says.
“I started to make more and more of these hands, and as news spread around that that was what I was doing, I got more and more people contacting me.”
It was at this stage that one of Bowtell’s university friends, who was now in Japan, contacted him asking for help.
“He said he had chopped off his finger about 10 years ago in a workplace accident, and he said ‘look can you make just an individual finger that I might be able to use?’ Because he said he couldn’t wear things like gloves anymore with the extra finger, simple things that we take for granted,” Bowtell explains.
“And so I thought, yeah ok, challenge accepted. And I spent the next year trialling and developing what I call the ‘Kinetic Finger’ and I got it to a point where he could actually wear this thing and it would function just like a normal finger, and he could even wear his work gloves over the top and play the piano again after 10 years.
“So that was just an amazing sense of accomplishment when I developed that.
“Then I released the designs for that online so that anyone around the world could make it and download it. With access to a 3D printer they could make it for about 90 cents which is about 6000th of the cost of anything else that you could buy.”
According to Bowtell 3D printing is now so easy, people can “literally make their own” fingers.
“They can basically just download the 3D printable files online and they can use the open source software to scale that to the correct size. Once they have done that they can use a 3D printer to print the parts out and they can assemble it and use it,” he says.
“There are children in primary schools using printers now, so it is actually not difficult.
“The design of the parts is obviously, being an engineer has helped me to do that, but the downloading and the making, primary school kids can do that.”
Bowtell says his current aim is to make, not just the product, but the method, accessible so his designs can help people around the world.
“I see a massive problem in war torn countries like Cambodia and Colombia, where there is the largest number of landmine victims in the world, and they have no option other than to hobble around on one leg for the rest of their life,” he says.
“Even if you sell [a prosthetic] to them for $100 they still wouldn’t be able to afford it. So I’m trying to develop not just the product but the method for them to be able to develop them very, very cheaply themselves.
“I think from my own point of view, I could only probably make hands for hundreds maybe thousands of kids but if you can teach other people how to do it then effectively, you can help millions of people around the world.”
He says the potential of 3D technology is exponential.
“With 3D printing you can proptype very, very quickly, so you can make something, you can test and trial it and basically the same day you can have the later revision of that,” he says.
“In traditional manufacturing you needed to use expensive dyes and moulds and injection molding equipment and to modify that is very expensive, so the fact that you don’t need any tool other than the 3D printer at all, it has a great potential.
“At the moment with some of my designs I am actually merging technologies. So I am actually 3D printing a mould, and then pouring silicone into this 3D printed mould, so the cost of manufacturing is reduced greatly. Especially with prosthetics, because they need to be customised for each individual it just becomes a very low cost and effective solution with 3D printing.
“So with the legs I am planning to develop, for the landmine victims I am actually planning to 3D print moulds and make the parts out of a wax, so you have got a part made out of wax and then you can put that into a cast and burn out that wax and then pour in metal so you are in effect making metal parts from a wax part, which can be developed very very cheaply.
“I think the limitations are only limited by people’s imaginations and creativity.”
Bowtell says he is “adamant” that his designs will always be free for those who need them.
But he is currently looking at models to secure funding.
“I had never really thought of it as something I wanted to commercialise and I still don’t, I think once you commercialise it there will always be a price attached to the product,” he says.
“What I am hoping to do at the moment is to find a way that I can get funding to basically just stay in my workshop and do what I’m doing.
“Up until now, working full-time at Toyota, it was something I was doing after the kids went to bed at night, I would sit up in the workshop, but I am at the stage now where I am trying to find some form of funding, whether its governments or corporate funding or volunteer funding through personal donations, it is quite open at the moment. I am still trying to understand what those options are.
“At the same time all of the personal donations that I have received in the last year, they go 100 per cent towards buying the materials and paying the postage and equipment, rather than putting food on my table. So that’s definitely the next step, trying to find a way that I can do that.”
In recognition of his work, Bowtell has been named the 2018 Victorian Local Hero and is one of nine social change innovators to be named as 2018 Westpac Social Change Fellows.
He says it was “a funny thing” being recognised for his impact.
“When I went up to Canberra with all of the other 31 finalists [as part of the Australian of the Year awards for Victoria], we’re all up there thinking what the hell are we doing here? Because your focus is on helping others, it was never about ourselves,” Bowtell says.
“So we’re up there going gee we’re getting red carpet treatment and then canapes and glasses of champagne handed to us and it was absolutely surreal but at the same time, it was more of a confirmation for me that I am on the right path and that I have made the right decision.
“At the moment I am surviving on my redundancy payment from Toyota, so I don’t have a current income but I really want to try and accelerate what I’m doing. So it couldn’t have come at a better time being named Victoria’s Local Hero for 2018, as well as getting this grant from Westpac, it is a real confirmation I am on the right track.”
He says with the Westpac fellowship, which recognises inspiring individuals who are committed to creating positive social change in Australia, he is most excited about the networks it promises to open.
“I walked in there into the final interview and they said ‘you’re really a unique individual aren’t you?’ and I said ‘why do you say that?’ and they said ‘well we offer up to $50,000 and you’ve asked for about $25,000’, and I said ‘well for me it wasn’t about the money’,” he says.
“It was more about the opportunities it is going to open up, the networks and the leadership courses that they are going to get me involved in and hopefully it will put a lot of clarity to some of those questions about how to move forward, and to me that is the true value of this social fellowship grant that I’ve been awarded.”
He says he wants to show people that you can make positive impact in other people’s lives.
“I have got two young kids, five and seven, and the lesson I am trying to teach them is that giving back to society is a very important thing and sharing love, compassion and empathy toward others,” Bowtell says.
“I think at the moment we’ve really become a generation of hashtaggers and keyboard warriors, but I think if you believe in something you should really do something about it, rather than just hashtag about it on social media.
“I want to show people that you can make real positive change in other people’s lives and you don’t have to quit your day job to do that, and I want to teach my children that that is a very important thing.”