Phillip Island, VIC
In November 2021, LG Electronics Australia recognised Mat Bowtell as a local hero in his community of Phillip Island, Victoria. After a job redundancy sparked a re-evaluation of what mattered most to him, Mat decided to take his career as an engineer in a new philanthropic direction.
Inspired by the impact that one small act of kindness could have upon the life of a child with hand differences, Mat launched a charity dedicated to delivering free assistive devices through the power of 3D printing technology. Seven years on, Free 3D Hands is Mat’s biggest triumph and has changed the lives of thousands of people all around the world.
We spoke with Mat to learn more about how Free 3D Hands came about, the greatest challenges and highlights of his journey, and what lies ahead for the charity.
LG: What inspired you to give back in your community?
MB: When I was studying engineering at university, I had an amazing opportunity to complete a scholarship in Japan and trial a $1 million bionic arm. I was in awe of the capability of assistive devices back then, but I was saddened that this technology would never likely reach the people who needed it most.
Later in 2014, when I was working as an engineer at Toyota, it was announced that local manufacturing would end in 2017. During the three years of winding down, I decided I wanted to do something good for my community to maintain a positive mindset during this difficult and uncertain time. I felt a responsibility to use my skills to make assistive technology freely available to anyone.
LG: How did you come up with the concept?
MB: Shortly after my redundancy was announced, I decided to volunteer my time to create an assistive hand device for a four-year-old boy in Newcastle. In 2015, I purchased my first 3D printer, and seeing the smile on young Eli’s face as he wore the Iron Man styled 3D hand for the first time truly changed my life forever.
From that point on, I started designing low-cost 3D printed hands and fingers in the hours before and after work, collaborating with groups around the world who were trying to do the same thing. Using the advanced design software called Solidworks that I had used during my days at Toyota, I set out to improve upon existing solutions and shared my designs under an open-source license to allow anybody else to make them, but not sell or profit from the designs.
My passion for helping improve the quality of life for people with hand differences brought me immense joy and only grew further, until I was named ‘2018 Australian of the Year – VIC Local Hero’ – and I knew that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.
LG: What results have you achieved so far?
MB: Since my initial vision of making “one hand for one kid”, we have made hundreds of 3D hands and assistive devices for children and adults with hand differences.
After releasing our Kinetic Hand design under an open-source license in late-2020, it has been downloaded by over 4,500 people worldwide allowing our impact to grow exponentially to all corners of the globe. By freely sharing our designs online, we’ve been able to benefit thousands who have downloaded them to make devices for countless others.
We collaborate and share all our learnings with others, including a hospital in Thailand who make our hands for members of a leprosy colony. By decentralising my designs, people will be able to continue accessing them long after my own lifetime.
Additionally, during the 2020 personal protective equipment shortage brought about by COVID-19, we pivoted to create free face-shields for front line workers across Australia and our local hospital. Generous community donations and further state government funding enabled us to employ seven people in our community who had been stood down during the pandemic to help us manufacture and distribute 6,000 re-usable face shields.
LG: Have you come up against any challenges?
MB: Providing assistive technology free of charge to anyone, anywhere in the world was initially very challenging. The upfront costs came out of my own pocket, but soon after, other people who believed in my vision started to help by purchasing the materials and paying for postage. My wife has also been supportive throughout, which has allowed me to gain the courage to commit the redundancy payout and become a full-time volunteer for the following two years that it took to formalise Free 3D Hands into a registered charity.
For another year, I did not draw a wage from the charity until I found a way to pay our staff wages through paid corporate speaking engagements. This was to ensure that public donations from the community went directly towards the materials and postage to get our devices to recipients.
Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic also brought on new challenges when public speaking opportunities dried up. However, in response, we temporarily diversified our offering to create face-shields for front line workers.
We have been very fortunate to be supported by our community and corporate sponsors to continue to do what we do and overcome any challenges that come our way.
LG: What’s next for you and your initiative?
MB: Free 3D Hand’s next goal is to develop a low cost, multi-grip bionic arm that will be freely available to anyone on the planet. While equivalent bionic arms can cost tens of thousands of dollars, our prototype can currently be made for under $50 with all parts readily accessible so others can recreate the design.
We have recently opened our new Free 3D Hands Design Centre, which we hope will become an epicentre for global open-source collaboration. The facility was designed as a ‘smart factory’ to be accessible to people of all abilities. The layout allows visitors to easily view the 3D printing room and design lab and to invites the community to visit and see what we’re developing. Additionally, we will be collaborating with a world leading orthopaedic surgeon to make our bionic arm compatible with advanced muscle sensors and osseo-integrated titanium implants.
LG: What does being named an ‘LG Local Legend’ mean to you?
MB: Being recognised as an LG Local Legend is an absolute honour. It is so humbling and heart-warming to think that someone took the time to nominate me, and while I never expect to receive any sort of reward for what I do, I would kindly like to thank LG for the very generous support. The recognition has encouraged me to continue making a positive impact on the lives of people around the world who require assistive technology. My wife and I are also still saving for our first home, so these creature comfort gifts from LG are warmly appreciated. Thank you from the bottom of my heart - I am truly grateful.
We would truly like to thank Mat for his dedication to his local community and wish him all the best as he continues to change the lives of people all around the world with hand differences. For more information about Mat’s mission, visit Free 3D Hands.
You can learn more about the inspiring work our LG Local Legends are doing within their local communities by visiting lglifesgood.com.au.