Rob MacKay shows off the prosthetic hand he was able to make with digital files from the internet and his own 3D printers. The hand, which will go to someone who needs it, is just one of the results of MacKay’s new 3D printing hobby. — Submitted by Rob MacKay

Vancouver Island man giving a hand to those less fortunate

Man 3D prints a prosthetic hand as part of new hobby

A long-time Parksville resident now living in Courtenay has a new hobby, and it’s recently led him to give a hand to the less fortunate — literally.

Rob MacKay bought his first 3D printer about a year ago, and one of his latest projects was to print a prosthetic hand which will be sent to someone who needs it through eNable Canada (

MacKay, who’s semi-retired but still working as the marketing director at the Quality Foods distribution centre in Errington, downloaded the plans for the hand from the internet and watched assembly videos to learn how to piece together the various parts that his 3D printer could make.

“I didn’t get it right the first time,” said MacKay, which meant the hand wasn’t ready for an eNable Canada trip to Thailand, but it will nonetheless find an owner who need it, he said.

“I took a few tries at it but I got it right and I was happy with the results. I’m excited to see that go halfway across the world to somebody that, it’s going to change their life. That just blows me away,” said MacKay.

Describing himself as a hobby artist and tinkerer, MacKay said he’d been keeping his eye on the developments in 3D printing over the last several years. “I love dimensional art,” said MacKay.

While there are various methods of 3D printing, the kind that’s become more and more accessible to people at home works by stacking and fusing thin layers of plastic material. A plastic filament is fed from a spoke through a nozzle called an extruder. The filament is heated up, and the extruder pushes out the filament onto a bed in the shape of whatever object it’s printing. Layers and layers of filament are built up onto each other and fused together until the 3D object is finished.

“I saw the opportunity to use 3D printing for molding prototypes and original artwork down the road, but didn’t have a clue where to start,” MacKay said.

He found an opportunity while judging the Quality Food Sand Sculpting competition last year. “The idea kept niggling me that the (sand) sculptures could be replicated in miniature (using 3D printing) as a physical record of a temporary medium.”

So MacKay jumped right in, buying his first desktop 3D printer and starting to learn about photogrammetry (a process by which photos of something can yield a digital 3D model) and modelling by computer.

MacKay notes that, even though he didn’t know what he was doing (taking photos with his phone in the wrong kind of light, and not taking enough photos), he was still able to make a small 3D model of a sand sculpture, and gift it to the sculptors who returned to this year’s competition.

This year he hired a professional photographer to take pictures of the winning sculptures so he can see what quality of model he can come up with. So far, it’s looking good, he said, with digital models of the winning doubles sculpture rendered in his computer, though he hasn’t tried to print it yet.

“It’s a bit addictive, that’s for sure,” said MacKay of his hobby, adding with a laugh that he now has three 3D printers. “It really gives you lots to think about and lots to learn.”

It’s a steep learning curve, he said, but he’s been able to do all his learning on the internet, where there’s a strong 3D printing community. That’s where he learned about 3D-printed prosthetics.

“I signed up as a volunteer with eNable Canada, part of a large network of people like myself who print and assemble devices for those in need,” he said.

After finishing his first prosthetic project just a few weeks ago, MacKay said he hopes to do more prosthetics, and added he also has some ideas for what his 3D printed models of sand sculptures could be used for.

But he notes he’s looking for more artistic ways of using his new printing capabilities.

“My passion is for art, so for either reproducing existing art or creating original art and printing it, or casting and molding it and reproducing it. That’s where my direction is going.”

MacKay, who will be 60 years old this year, will have no trouble filling up his time once he’s retired.

Asked whether he’d recommend 3D printing as a hobby to others, he said it could be a great fit for some.

“I think if you’ve got a tenacious personality and you’re a tinkerer type anyway and you like solving a problem and working through it and overcoming obstacles and going through failures to get the end result, I would say yeah, go ahead. It’s a lot of fun.”

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