Printing possibilities

Through 3-D printing, UW Bothell’s Ivan Owen is increasing access to prosthetics for children around the world with missing fingers — and inspiring the next generation of innovators along the way.

Passion Never Rests

From a flamethrower to custom-made suits of armor, Ivan Owen has built an eclectic collection of special effects props. Inventing and puppeteering began as a hobby, but in 2012 a woman in South Africa contacted Owen in hopes that he and a collaborator could fashion something more meaningful: a mechanical hand for her son, Liam, who was born without fingers on his right hand. A friend suggested they cut costs and quicken assembly time by printing the parts, and soon Liam became the first recipient of a 3-D printed hand. Fast-forward to 2015, and more than 1,500 similar assistive devices have been delivered across the globe.

Sparking student innovation

Inspired by Owen’s 3-D printed hand design and the e-NABLE community, students from the UW, UW Bothell and Seattle Pacific University initiated and organized Seattle’s first ever “Handathon” in February 2015. The event drew students, faculty, engineers and other like-minded innovators to the UW’s Mechanical Engineering Building for 24 hours of creative collaboration. They gathered with one goal in mind — to unite their diverse talents in order to improve the design of the 3-D printed hand. Learn more about Handathon.

With 3-D printing, Owen found the perfect medium for creating assistive devices for children. “Not only does it make it easier to produce components quickly and less expensively, but we can rescale the design as the child grows,” explains Owen. Encouraged by the impact of the hand on Liam, Owen decided that the best way to maximize the accessibility of the device was to release the design under a public domain license — meaning it can be freely downloaded or improved upon by anyone. Today, anyone can access printable hand designs through e-NABLE, a website connecting children to assistive devices, volunteers with access to 3-D printers and a community of support. The site also fuels innovation: Many of the designs are improvements to the original hand made by a global network of designers, including Owen.

In addition to serving as a board member for e-NABLE, Owen is teaching the next generation of outside-the-box thinkers as a lab manager at UW Bothell’s Makerspace lab. Since opening in early 2015, the lab has grown to more than 30 undergraduate students working on projects ranging from improving upon the e-NABLE community’s hand designs to creating a more accessible 3-D printer. Additionally, the lab provides a unique interdisciplinary experience. One project — a motorized, low-cost hand that provides a sense of touch — brought together students from mechanical and electrical engineering, biology, computer science, mathematics and law. Owen hopes that they will soon be able to fit children with devices at the lab, letting the students see for themselves how their work can do a world of good.

Through guidance from both Owen and his mentor Pierre Mourad, a professor of engineering and math at UW Bothell and neurological surgery at the UW School of Medicine, the lab is a place of truly boundless possibility. “There are no limits,” says Robby Shaffer, a junior studying mechanical engineering. “You can go anywhere as long as you’re willing to put in the work, and Pierre and Ivan will support you to do that.”

Owen still enjoys creating props and volunteering with e-NABLE, but he’s found his true passion is working with students in the Makerspace lab. “Education is its own art form, really. I get to come into work every day and engage in one kind of art, and then I go home and do another.”


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