Our 2019 Australian Knight

Every Australia Day, staff at The Knight recognise a worthy recipient(s), for our ‘Australian Knight’ award, who has demonstrated qualities that personify those of a Knight. 

This year, we wish to acknowledge Mat Bowtell as our Australian of the Year, our Australian Knight.

Click here to view our 2019 Australia Day Card

The Knight is donating $10,000 to the Free 3D Hands charity when it becomes ‘live.’

Mat Bowtell’s Full Bio

Studied engineering at Monash University, and in 2004 was sent to Chiba University in Japan on a scholarship to study mechatronics. During that time, I tried on a one-million-dollar bionic arm. I was very impressed with the technology, but felt a bit sad that this amazing technology would not likely ever make it to people in developing countries that need them.

I worked at Toyota for 10 years as a senior engineer, specialising in lean manufacturing spending a year on transfer to Motomachi Plant in Japan. I spent 3 years in Supplier Development, helping suppliers improve their processes, reducing waste and improving the quality of their products. For the last 5 years of my career, I introduced 3d printing to Toyota Australia to implement low cost solutions.

In 2014, Toyota Australia announced that the Altona Plant was to close in Oct 2017- We were given 3 ½ years notice. It was at that time that I wanted to do something positive with my engineering skills during the wind-down of the automotive industry.

I re-visited my interest of bionics and prosthetics that I had from my university days, and combined that with the skills that I had learnt at Toyota to try to make devices that would be accessible to all people around the world.

I purchased a 3D printer, software and a 3D scanner to start developing 3d printed hands from my home. (About 1 in 10,000 kids are born without fingers and partially formed hands)

I wanted to start by making just one hand for one kid, but when I saw the smile on his face, I got so much satisfaction and realised that it was something that I wanted to keep doing. So, I made more and more hands, for kids in Australia and around the world.

I started a crowdfunding campaign to help me to get a larger 3D printer, better scanner, and to help pay for postage. One arm that I sent to Iraq cost $86 in postage, and this was what made me start the crowdfunding campaign, since it was costing me a lot of money to continue doing what I was doing.

The media started to look at what I was doing once the crowd funding site went live, starting with 9 News when I drove to Wollongong to deliver two hands to two girls, then a follow- up interview with Neil Mitchell on 3AW the next morning. Eddie McGuire called me into Triple M Hot Breakfast, and the Project did a short feature as I made more and more hands.

I then developed a Kinetic Finger for a friend in Japan. With about one year of development and trialling, Yusuke was able to play the piano again after a decade of losing his finger in an accident.

I then released this design online, for anyone to download, scale to size and 3D print themselves under a Creative Commons License that allows people to modify and make, but not sell or profit from the design. The Kinetic Finger costs about 90 cents to make, and is equivalent to a commercial product worth $6,500 dollars. It has been downloaded approx. 1800 times globally, equating to approximately $18 million of value to people who couldn’t access or afford this type of device before.

By the time I walked out the gate of Toyota for the last time, I no longer saw myself as a Toyota engineer anymore, but as an “engineer and prosthetic limb innovator” How could I continue doing this full time as a volunteer? I had been offered many jobs immediately after the Toyota closure, but this is what I wanted to do. But how?

I was standing at the waters edge in San Remo several days after the closure, looking out at the water assessing my options when I got a phone call. It was the Australia Day Council advising me that I was a Victorian finalist for the Australian of the Year Awards. A week later, I was invited to Government House, and my name was called out to receive the 2018 VIC Local Hero Award… I think the universe was telling me to continue doing what I am doing.

This led to being invited to Canberra for the Australian of the Year Awards, where I became good friends with other finalists Samuel Johnson and Eddie Woo. We visited the Prime Minister for morning tea, and had a great time. It was very surreal.

But those relationships grew, and Samuel helped me to improve my crowdfunding site, so that people could choose how they would like me to spend their funding. His greatest concern was that I would not be able to put food on the table. So, he created www.helpinghand.ecwid.com , out of his own pocket to give me a kick start. He also organised The Project to visit my workshop and share my work, as well as drag me into Jon Faine’s Conversation Hour together.

I moved from Melbourne down to Phillip Island where I grew up, to raise the kids in an amazing community. I am rented a place with a large workshop that now houses twelve 3D printers. I have been using my redundancy payment to allow me to stay in my workshop to develop and make hands as a full-time volunteer for the last year. I have had overwhelming support from the community, including some local businessmen who are paying my rent to stay in the workshop and innovate!

Westpac Bank also awarded me one of eight $50,000 Social Change Fellowships to travel the world to strengthen networks with likeminded people, visit world class bionic and prosthetic companies and 3D printing conventions to increase my ability to give back to Australian society. I visited Japan, USA, UK, Germany, France and finished doing a short stint in a prosthetics company in Denmark over a total of 8 weeks overseas.

After returning, I had a lot of new ideas. Including making simple devices to do specific tasks. I developed a skipping rope adapter to allow kids to hold a skipping rope. I have now sent about 80 of these around the world. I have also developed piano adapters, and a violin bow attachment.

ABC Catalyst aired an episode called Bionic Revolution in October which visited many leading bionic developers all around the world, and contrasted this with what I am trying to do, visiting my workshop. On the night that Catalyst aired, the flew me to Sydney to be a part of the Invictus Games broadcast, to tell my story and do some forward promotion for the Catalyst that was on afterwards. After it aired, I gained a lot of support in crowd funding, but I also received about 1000 emails and hundreds of requests for help. So, a spanner had now been thrown in the gears. There is no way that I could possibly help all of these people the way that I am doing this on my own. But, one of the emails that came in was from Norman Waterhouse lawyers in Adelaide that specialise in charities. The offered pro-bono support to fomalise a charity, and I met with them this week in Adelaide to get the ball rolling.

With all of the generous funding that has come in, I have just leased a large factory in the industrial park in Cowes, which will allow me to take Free 3D Hands to the next level. The factory will have a dedicated admin desk, a consultation area, a Just In Time lean production line (this was my job to set up production lines at Toyota!), a prototyping and development area, a 3D printing room with twenty 3D printers sequenced to the production line, and pictures all over the walls of the hands that I have made. There will also be a “Thank you” wall with every individual name of people who have helped me to get this to where we are. This has been a huge global community effort.

Formalising as a charity will allow organisations to make formal donations with tax deductible receipts (DGR status), and I am hoping to be able to utilise Work for the Dole volunteers to help assemble hands, giving them something meaningful to do, get them Govt funded training and get them back into the workforce with added confidence in themselves. I am hoping that Free 3D hands will become a real community initiative. It is going to be a very exciting year.

Why don’t I charge for hands?

I believe as a society that we have a fundamental responsibility to look after those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

If I charged $10 for a hand, then to me it would only be worth $10. But when you give it to someone for free, then it becomes priceless.

I could never charge a cent for any of my devices. Because that is the way it should be.

I dream of a world where access to devices that improve the lives of others is not dependant on how much money you have in the bank. All people in this world are born equal, and deserve the same.

Through what I am doing, I am hoping to encourage prosthetic and bionic developers to innovate, to use smarter engineering, and make devices that are accessible to all.

Here is my new logo for the charity Free 3D Hands that will be formed over the next few months:

Each one of us have special talents and abilities that can be used to improve the lives of others.

When I decided to become a full-time volunteer, I completely eliminated money from the equation and just focussed on adding value. Money is just a by-product of adding value, and people all around the world have given me so much support to continue to make free 3D hands into what it is today. I have gained a new faith in humanity, and I am excited about the journey ahead.

People can follow my work at www.facebook.com/free3dhands

The crowdfunding link is at www.helpinghand.ecwid.com

And a newly formed website can be found at www.free3dhands.com, which has download links, links to social media and crowdfunding page and email, as well as an application form for a hand.

Thank you for your kind and generous support.

Warmest Regards,

Mat Bowtell