RACV lends 3D printing charity a helping hand

Living Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 11 September 2020

A former Toyota engineer is making prosthetic hands accessible to those in need.

When Mat Bowtell gives a hand, he does so literally. Mat makes 3D-printed prosthetic hands for a fraction of the usual $20,000 commercial cost and gives them to people in need – without charging a cent.

When COVID-19 hit, he re-purposed some of his dozens of 3D printers to make 4000 face shields for Victoria’s front-line health workers while continuing his work making prosthetics.

The only thing holding back Mat and his charity, Free 3D Hands, was unreliable power at his Phillip Island factory. 

“Even the smallest disruption to the power supply during production means we need to scrap the printed materials and start again,” Mat says. 

That’s where RACV Solar stepped in. Along with support from Tesla, Fronius, Trina Solar and Clenergy, as well as the Bass Coast Shire Council, Phillip Island RSL and local schools, RACV Solar has gifted a fail-safe rooftop solar energy system to the charity. 

The RACV Solar team installed a 30kW solar power system and two Tesla Powerwall batteries with a total battery storage of 27kWh. It has blackout protection which means the 3D printers can run even when the power goes out. Mat says the system will save the charity up to $15,000 a year in energy costs. 

RACV Solar’s chief executive officer Andy McCarthy says Mat’s work is inspiring. “They use the latest 3D-printing technology to improve lives around the world. Mat has even provided his designs for free as open-source downloads so anyone in the world with a 3D printer can make a prosthetic hand. It’s a testament to Mat’s values and integrity.” 

The story of Free 3D Hands began when Mat, a former Toyota automotive engineer, was retrenched in 2017. Instead of spending his redundancy payout on luxuries, he invested in a charity to make prosthetic limbs for free, not even charging postage or material costs. 

“This is my passion,” says Mat, who had a Eureka moment in 2004 when he tried on a million-dollar bionic arm while on a [university] scholarship at Japan’s Chiba University.

“I was amazed at the technology, it was like Luke Skywalker – half human, half machine,” he says. “But I was saddened that it would never be accessible to people in less developed countries or ordinary Australians who couldn’t afford it.” 

Mat Bowtell holding 3D-printed prosthetic hands

Mat Bowtell turned his experience as an automotive engineer to making 3D-printed prosthetic hands for children.

That first hand I made changed my life forever. I have never experienced such joy [as] seeing the smile on one kid’s face.

Mat says when he started printing 3D hands, he had a “small vision: one kid, one 3D printer, one hand”. 

“That first hand I made changed my life forever. I have never experienced such joy [as] seeing the smile on one kid’s face,” he says. “I believe you shouldn’t have to charge one cent to improve a life.” 

He says that 3D printing is an extremely cost-effective method for making prosthetics. A prosthetic hand that would normally cost $20,000 can be made for as little as $5.

He has now made hundreds of prosthetic hands and fingers and is working on a bionic arm that will cost him around $100 compared to the usual $40,000 for commercial models.  

The low cost has particular advantages for children, he explains. “When it comes to kids, prosthetics are like shoes, they outgrow them in a year and, at $20,000 a hand, the cost stops people getting them for young kids.”

His prosthetics are kid-friendly and come in a multitude of colours. There’s even a ‘transformer’ hand to impress other kids. “One girl wanted her first hand so she could ride a bike, we made it in purple with sparkling glitter,” he says.

Mat doesn’t draw a cent from the charity. “I’m conscious of every cent we spend, that money donated by mums and dads and ordinary Australians goes toward the cost of making the prosthetics.” Instead he supports his young family through paid guest-speaking engagements.  

Along the way, he has picked up accolades including being shortlisted as one of four Victorians nominated for Australian of the Year in 2017 and winning the title Victorian Local Hero, but that’s not why he does it. “It’s a smile from a child,” he says.

Andy says RACV has a strong history of supporting Victorians and contributing to the community in many ways. “One critical way we can provide this support is through solar power and battery storage – providing cheaper, cleaner, more resilient energy supply for homes and businesses,” Andy says.  

RACV Solar has donated similar set-ups to wildlife shelters, disaster relief centres and neighbourhood houses.