Thinking Outside Of The Box – Interview with Ivan Owen

Ivan Owen – demonstrating how to use repurposed drills and other components – to charge cell phones in disaster areas like Nepal.

Guest Blog Post
Written by Adam Kitz
Western Washington University, Bellingham WA

This last week I got to meet up with Ivan Owen, co-creator of the first 3D printed hand that was made for a 5 year old child in South Africa. He invited me to meet him at his lab at the University of WA Bothell. The University hired Ivan a little over a year and a half ago, to run their on-campus 3D print labs, mentor student led research teams and to manage and set up their growing makerspace and the equipment available to students and staff.

Ivan describes himself as an artist and a non-traditional engineer. The first hand he designed was not designed for anyone in particular, it was designed for fun as a functional prop hand for a costume. Unbeknownst to Ivan, his simple Large Mechanical Hand video on Youtube, would be the starting point for the global maker movement of e-NABLE Community volunteers that would come together to bring free 3D printed prosthetic hands to those in need.

Though Ivan designed the hand that started what would eventually become the base design for 3D printed hand devices, he is a modest man who prefers to take a back seat role at e-NABLE. With his main focus being to inspire a larger global impact type vision among others and his desire to enable others to succeed, his position at UW Bothell is perfect for him and allows him to help the next generation of young minds to see the broader impact that their designs and ideas can have on the world.

Lab space at UW Bothell

At 8:30 on a friday morning I am not surprised to find the lab pretty much empty. There is a line of 3D printers by the door I came in through. One of them is printing some parts, which I later found is a part of a project Ivan is working on with a local high school senior that reached out to him looking for a mentor. At opposite sides of a lab table Ivan and a student, Robbie, are working silently. Ivan is finishing some last minute preparations for a trip to Poland to speak about 3D printing and e-NABLE’s work this weekend and Robbie is busy getting ready for the coming end of the quarter.

Raptor Wing design – created by UWB Students with Ivan Owen – for those with forearms but no wrists. Still in Beta Testing stage.

Robbie is a part of a team of UW Bothell students that work on developing modifications to e-Nable hands. His previous work was with the creation of the Raptor Wing. The Raptor Wing is an adaptor for the Raptor Reloaded, designed for individuals with a forearm, but no wrist. After Robbie developed the design with his team and Ivan’s mentorship, the design was released to the e-Nable community for testing, expansion, and eventual release to the public. The e-Nable discussion on this device can be found here.

Since then, Robbie and his team has been working on another adaption for the Raptor Reloaded – a thumb with varying positions to increase the functionality and provide different grips.

This model has two grips, the “Key grip” and the “Cup grip.”

UWB Key Grip - multi positional thumb design
UWB Key Grip – multi positional thumb design
UWB Cup Grip – multi-positional thumb design

While I was visiting the lab space, Ivan and Robbie came up with an idea for fixing one of the problems they were having with the hands. The thumb didn’t always stay in position, despite their previous attempts to lock it into place. The solution they came up with does not actually come from 3D printing, it comes from the world around us –  much like Ivan’s early designs. They postulated, that by hollowing out the joint connecting the thumb to the hand, they could insert a spring (taken out of a mechanical pencil) and a bb pellet to increase resistance, helping the thumb lock into place.

Though Ivan has made a name for himself with 3D printed hands, he does not believe that 3D printing is the answer to everything. A few weeks ago, Jeff Erenstone, a fellow e-NABLE volunteer and Prosthetist who is part of our team, contacted Ivan about another non-profit organization called PortalBikes , who create customized bicycles for the people of Nepal – that are currently being used to transport food, medical supplies, equipment and people in the wake of the earthquakes and devastation there. Because so much of the country is without power and the rescue workers and medical staff are heavily reliant on being able to communicate with each other via cell phone – it has become very difficult to find locations to charge their phones amongst the rubble.


Portalbikes creates bicycles with an additional gear and chain that allows the bike to generate energy while it is being ridden, but were unable to come up with a way to allow them to harness that energy in a way that would charge cell phones without harming the devices.

Ivan, along with another local artist, Jeremy Noet and some of the students working with him at UWB are now working on an adaptor for the bike that allows it to charge cell phones. Because of the earthquake and the difficulties in shipping larger items and materials to Nepal, Ivan wanted to focus on a solution that would be able to incorporate tools that are already available in various remote locations that could be salvaged for use even in the wake of destruction.

A repurposed drill, connected to the extra gear on one of these bikes can create 8-24 volts. This kind of wattage would damage the phones, so Ivan added a $5 computer chip to the design to regulate the amount of energy that is actually going to be used by the charger. This design is still in the development stage at the UWB lab, but the prototype will be tested in Nepal soon and has the potential to help make a great impact and potentially help to save lives.

Ivan may consider himself just an artist and non-traditional engineer – but he uses his creativity, imagination, self taught knowledge and expertise wherever they are needed. Whether it is helping a carpenter in Southern Africa regain the use of his hand after an accident, helping thousands of people keep their cell phones charged in the fallout of a catastrophic event, or simply helping a student group repurpose a 3D printer to print chocolates. Ivan uses his non-traditional engineering to change lives.

For more information on how you can join the e-NABLE community as a volunteer and use your creativity and ideas to help us make a difference – please visit our Get Involved page. Your ideas are more powerful than you might think and sharing them with others who can help your ideas come to life – is sometimes …exactly what the world needs. 

3 thoughts on “Thinking Outside Of The Box – Interview with Ivan Owen

  1. Fay Reply

    The world needs more Ivan’s. How great it is that he is spreading his work out to students. Very interesting blog post.

  2. Allen Courtright Reply

    Great job. I’m looking forward to the multi-positional thumb design.

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