5 Ways to Help the Most People Possible With One 3D Printer

Mick Ebeling made his living as a video producer, when, one day, he had an incredibly vague notion to "do something good." While you might get that inkling and opt to throw a real quarter to the homeless this time, instead of more pesos, Mick aimed a little higher.

No, not at their heads. You monster.

Mick and the team at Not Impossible Foundation set out to find a way to provide prosthetics to kids who have been crippled by the ongoing merry-go-round of murder that is the Sudan. Here's how they did it:

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5
The Little Novelty Toy That Will Change the World

MakerBot

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It all started with this little guy -- the MakerBot Replicator 2:

MakerBot
There's at least five Syfy original movie titles you can make out of the words in that name.

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That funky-looking box weighs about 25 pounds. It's small enough that you could fit it in a carry-on bag (though, they will have some serious questions for you at airport security), and it'll set you back around $1,900. Cool, right? You could probably make all kinds of dildos with that sucker. All kinds.

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True, you could fabricate the anatomically correct dongs of all your favorite superheroes -- or you could dramatically improve the quality of life for millions and millions of suffering people around the world.

drywater_photography/iStock/Getty Images
The one on the left is Spider-Man.

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Here's a prosthetic arm that MakerBot printed for a Sudanese teenager who was wounded in one of that region's nigh-perpetual civil wars:

Tim Freccia / Not Impossible
The one on the left is Superman.

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3D printers work by putting down multiple thin layers of plastic filament on top of each other, over and over again, until they've "printed" whatever three-dimensional design you programmed into the computer attached to the printer. If you want to print something too large to fit in that little box, you just print it in pieces and assemble it later. That's how the arm in the above picture was made.

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Still not buying it? Fine, we'll cut you a deal right here: For every two Hulk dicks you print, just print one prosthetic limb. That alone could change the world.

4
Prosthetics Are Not Affordable -- Unless You 3D Print Them

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If you happen to lose an arm in an impromptu man-on-bobcat pit fight (the true sport of kings), you can expect to pay between $3,000 and $30,000 for a prosthetic replacement. That's a significant strain on the budget of an average American family. Over in Sudan, an average person makes maybe $1,500 a year. A prosthetic arm may as well be a solid gold Lamborghini powered by pure saffron.

SbytovaMN/iStock/Getty Images
Their typical holiday bonus would buy them a 3D hangnail at best.

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Enter Richard Van As, a South African carpenter who cut 4 fingers off his right hand in a fluke table saw accident. We shall refrain from speculating on his hardcore carpentry techniques. Richard quickly learned that a traditional prosthetic wasn't affordable for him, either, so he set to work designing his own prosthetic and, eventually, started 3D printing and sending out hands to needy kids across the globe.

Robohand
"We've already taken over? Sweet, guess I'll head back home then." - The T-1000.

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Mick flew Richard over to the U.S. to help his team design an entire 3D printable limb. Days of brainstorming didn't yield them a functional prototype, but Mick already had his plane tickets to Sudan booked. He's the sort of man who puts "committing to the project" ahead of "knowing how to do that project." A lot of people would have pulled back the reins, once it became clear that their original plan was much less workable than anticipated. But, Mick isn't a lot of people. In fact, as best as our staff numerologists have been able to determine, he's actually just one incredibly stubborn person.

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" ... Richard generously said, 'It's clear you're not going to quit, so, instead of leaving to Sudan, you should go to South Africa first,' and I went out there, slept on his floor, ate his food, and we worked probably 20 hours a day, and I got the crash course on 3D printing -- I had never done it before -- and in making prosthetics."

Tim Freccia / Not Impossible
His next goal is to terraform Mars, despite never having planted a tree before.

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By the time Mick's flight to Sudan came along, Richard had successfully taught him how to build a 3D printed arm. It was time to help the holy crap out of some unsuspecting sons of bitches.

3
A Functional Prosthetic Is Life-Changing

Not Impossible Labs

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Daniel Omar was the kid responsible for this whole crazy limb bonanza. In fact, Not Impossible named the entire project -- Project Daniel -- for him. Here's the start of a Time Magazine profile by Alex Perry:

"At the Mother of Mercy Hospital, deep in rebel-held territory in southern Sudan's Nuba Mountains, 14-year-old Daniel Omar describes how, on a bright clear day in early March, a bomb dropped by his own government blew off both his hands."

For most people, reading something like that causes momentary depression, best assuaged by donating $10 to whatever charity seems relevant or eating an entire family-sized bag of Doritos while watching cartoons. Mick had a different reaction:

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"After I read this article at 11 o'clock at night, that was the moment I decided I had to do something."

Paul Vasarhelyi/iStock/Getty Images
And not just because everything was a rerun.

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Daniel was not exactly excited when he heard that some American was flying into town with a miracle box to print him an arm. First, because that sounds like sci-fi gibberish, and, second, because he had heard that "we're giving you a free arm" spiel from charities before:

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"He'd already had prosthetic arms made for him out of Uganda. But, they were essentially mannequin arms. They were purely for aesthetics. When he got off the plane with his new mannequin arms, he shook them down and said, 'I'm not wearing these things.'"

Chris McGrath/Getty Images News/Getty Images
"Unless you give me a bunch more. Then, I can be Doctor Octopus whenever I want."

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But, Mick didn't arrive at the airport with the disassembled cast of Mannequin 3: Mannequan't Get Enough. He not only had plans for real, working prosthetics, but the equipment to help the locals make as many as they needed. Unfortunately, that whole "nightmarish war enveloping the entire country" kicked up again, right as they were ready to head out:

"We had every curveball in the world thrown at us -- not the least of which was a ceasefire ending, war breaking out, bombs going off during interviews, [and] not able to go out where we wanted to go."

Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Party poopers.

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Despite all of that, Mick's plan was a success, in part because he didn't have a team of employees to keep safe or an entire facility to protect and maintain. Here's everything he brought to South Sudan to help Daniel and dozens of other limbless war victims:

Not Impossible
Dang, we have brought more luggage on a trip to the bathroom.

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But, that was enough to get the job done: Mick printed out the limb, assembled it, and, with a little bit of troubleshooting, he was able to get Daniel his arm. For the first time since his injury, Daniel was able to feed himself:

Not Impossible
Though all of the mechanical arms in the world wouldn't get him to touch his beets.

What a happy ending! Fade out. Cue sappy music.

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...

m**********r, we said fade ou-

Oh, that's not the end? It's just the start?

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2
Education Makes a Much Bigger Difference Than Any Charitable Gift

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The motto for Mick's charity, Not Impossible, is "Help One, Help Many." Once they had given Daniel back the ability to feed himself and perform futuristic high-fives, it was time to broaden things:

"So, I taught the boys there how to 3D print. They made two arms while I was there."

Not Impossible
Neither sported a middle finger and nothing more, so these kids
showed way more patience than we ever could.

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Teaching a teenager not to throw their crap all over the floor is a difficult task. Teaching a bunch of teenagers with no computer experience how to manage a 3D printer -- and then use it to build prosthetic arms -- is cranking the difficulty up to "legendary."

" ... these guys had never seen a 3D printer, never conceived of a 3D printer. They had seen laptops before -- some of the expat workers had them. But, it was a little bit of a 'God must be crazy' moment. The first stuff we started to print was little toys and combs. They were blown away. If you can imagine kids seeing a little toy shark or toy bracelet -- eventually I had to be like, 'No more toy sharks, we have to get started.'"

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"At least make an actual dangerous animal. Like a cow."

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Mick's planned two weeks, with Dr. Tom at Mother Mercy hospital, was cut down to six days because of that pesky and "horrific war" thing. But, despite his very limited amount of time and the sheer complexity of his task, the kids picked it up:

Not Impossible

Not Impossible

Not Impossible
In the future, pinning the murder of your wife on one-armed men will become harder than ever.

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By the time Mick left, the kids were producing one prosthetic arm per week. His original goal had been one per month. Dr. Tom said they would have been happy with a few arms per year.

That's 7+ arms by the time they launched on Jan6, not to mention the burgeoning toy shark market.

1
For 3D Printers, Arms Are Just the Beginning

Not Impossible Now

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A 3D printer condenses a whole decade's worth of industrial development into a tiny box that can make damn near anything out of recycled plastic. It can turn this ...

Not Impossible

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... into an actual, functional arm for a human being. Plus, doing so is easy enough that children with no computer experience or technological education can figure it out in a couple of days. And, as Mick later learned, kids with the right education can do even more:

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"I've got a team of high school students developing a printed exoskeleton to help palsy patients walk again."

Not Impossible Now

Not Impossible Now
Which says a lot about the unbelievable promise of 3D printers:
These are devices that can make teenagers useful.

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Replicators, printed limbs, and, now, exoskeletons? We're on the cusp of a technological revolution that is literally ripped right out of science fiction. 3D printing apps are being developed for smartphones and tablets (the computers most accessible to poor kids around the world), and the cost of 3D printers drops every year. While companies such as Not Impossible and E-Nabling the Future (another prosthetic printer) are a great start, the real promise of this technology will bear fruit when kids like Daniel learn to design and build limbs -- and whatever else they can think of -- for themselves and their communities. The Industrial Revolution changed the world by putting people to work in factories. 3D Printers are going to change the world by turning each of us into a factory.

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And that's ... nowhere near as sinister as it sounds, we promise.

Robert Evans is Cracked's editorial manager, and he has a Twitter for some reason.

For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Harsh Truths You Learn as a Doctor in the Third World and 5 Bizarre Realities of Life at the Edge of Gaza.

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