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Meet the man 3D printing hands - for free

09:39am January 15 2019

Watch Mat Bowtell's story, from Toyota engineer to prosthetic limb innovator. (Josh Wall)

In his small garage turned workshop three hours south of Melbourne, the blips and beeps coming from Mat Bowtell’s eight 3D printers stacked on a shelf signal more special deliveries and “experiences” are imminent.

“I don’t see myself as someone who makes hands; I see what I do as giving people experiences,” he says.

For Bowtell, a former Toyota engineer turned philanthropic “prosthetic innovator”, the experiences he provides children born missing a limb range from riding a bike or playing music to something as simple as picking up a cup.

Prosthetic limbs can cost around $15,000, and a child can grow out of them within a year. In contrast, Bowtell’s 3D printed hands are created at a fraction of the cost, given to children for free and can be easily modified over time. Children can even choose their own colours, an “Iron Man” scheme proving popular.

“I really want to show these large prosthetic companies that … you can have one bloke sitting in a shed making things that are globally competitive – for a thousandth of the cost!” Bowtell tells Westpac Wire.

While the limbs can typically take about 15 hours to print, by spreading the components across three machines Bowtell has cut production time of each hand down to just five hours. He then ships them all over the world for free, not even charging postage.

“As I started to make things for people for free, the amount of satisfaction and reward that I got back came back a thousand fold,” he says.

“If I had charged someone even one dollar for something that I made, in my mind it would only be worth a dollar. When you make it for someone with no expectation or reward and give it to them for free, then it becomes priceless.”

The move stems from when Toyota’s Altona factory began the process of shutting down and Bowtell considered his next move, asking himself: if money wasn’t a factor, what would he do with his life?

“And this is what I came up with,” he says.

“Some of my designs, I could’ve made a lot of money from them, but it was something I wanted to do, completely removing money from the equation.”

Aside from getting by through crowdfunding and gifts, Bowtell was earlier this year among nine Australians to receive a Westpac Social Change Fellowship, valued at $50,000. As part of the Fellowship, he went overseas to meet with prosthetic and bionic innovators around the world and has returned full of inspiration for his most ambitious project to date – a bionic arm.

The Victorian Australian of the Year is hoping it will be “far superior to anything else available”, and naturally be produced for a fraction of the cost.

“To go and look at the latest and greatest technologies in 3D printing as well as bionics, it was just incredible,” he says. 

Josh Wall is the Head of Video at Westpac Wire. Prior to joining the team, he spent 10 years as a video journalist and documentary filmmaker, most recently as Head of Video for the Guardian Australia. He also worked across numerous News Corp mastheads in Sydney as a presenter, producer, writer and video journalist. Josh is originally from Perth, Western Australia where he began his career by co-creating a video magazine that focused on music and the arts.

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