Aug 25, 2015 | By Alec

3D printed prosthetics have been receiving a lot of praise for their low cost, availability and the extent to which they can be customized – all advantages made possible by relying on a 3D printer. However, several startups are constantly reminding us that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to basic mechanical prosthetics, as 3D printing is also now making bionic prosthetics an affordable possibility. Perhaps most promising among those startups is the British Open Bionics, which is aiming to take their product to market next year. For their efforts and fantastic designs, Open Bionics has just been awarded the UK James Dyson Award.

If the name Open Bionics sounds familiar, that’s probably because we reported on their progress a few times over the last year. To refresh your memories, Open Bionics was founded in 2013 by the now 25-year-old Joel Gibbard. The inspiration was found in a six-year-old girl who lost her limbs to meningitis and thought that existing hand prosthetics were too ugly and heavy. Starting out in his own bedroom, the robotics graduate from Plymouth University quickly found crowdfunding success for his project and backing from the Bristol Robotics Laboratory.

Since then, he has gone through about ten iterations, through which his designs have radically improved. Not only have the number of parts been radically reduced, Joel estimates that he can currently make a custom-fitted prosthetic in just two days, including the 3D scanning of the amputee – in contrast, a typical prosthetic takes several weeks (or up to a few months) to obtain. ‘The original design was primarily made of different plastic parts that were screwed and bolted together along with off-the-shelf components. It took a very long time to build, and because it was all made of plastic it was subject to a lot of weak points where it could break,’ Joel explains. ‘The new design is made of thermoplastic elastomer, which is basically a flexible rubbery plastic. So, we're able to print something in far fewer pieces and then have flexible joints. That means it's much more robust to impact forces and it requires much less assembly, so there are savings in cost, time and improvements in performance.’

What’s more, Joel is currently looking at a price tag of £2,000 for each fitting and device, a fraction of the £30,000 to £60,000 that many existing bionic prosthetics cost. A hellish amount of money for the parents of a growing child who frequently outgrows prosthetics. Joel is therefore very optimistic about his chances. ‘We have a device at the lower-end of the pricing scale and the upper end of functionality,’ he told reporters from the BBC. ‘At the same time it is very lightweight and it can be customized for each person. The hand is basically a skeleton with a 'skin' on top. So, we can do different things to the skin - we can put patterns on it, we can change the styling and design. There's quite a lot of flexibility there.’

The system itself is also very effective. Relying on sensors to pick up on myoelectric signals, the Open Bionic prosthetic can be operated simply by flexing muscles in the upper arm. A single flex opens and closes the grip, while a double flex starts a pinch grip. Sensors in the fingers meanwhile are used to limit pressure on objects, even enabling the picking up of objects as fragile as an egg. While not as functional as those very expensive bionics, you still definitely get your money’s worth. ‘We're using lower-cost motors than they have in high-end devices, so the overall strength is lower,’ Joel admits. ‘So, we are testing it with users and household objects and trying to come to a compromise that means it is very affordable and still has enough power to do most of the stuff that people want.’

Unsurprisingly, the response from the amputee community has been overwhelmingly positive, something we also saw with previous 3D printed prosthetics iterations made by Joel. ‘Joel Gibbard is to be congratulated in advancing the availability of functioning prosthetic devices at affordable prices,’ Barbara Jemec of the British Foundation for International Reconstructive Surgery and Training (BFirst) has said about his work. ‘Amputees, especially in developing countries, such as Sierra Leone where the civil war left many upper limb amputees, need to have access to affordable and durable prosthetics that work. A working hand can make all the difference between hunger and being able to work and take care of yourself and your family. I shall be following the development with interest.’

The James Dyson reward is thus very deserved. This engineering price features a £2,220 reward (approximately $3500 USD), as well as spot in the international James Dyson competition (featuring a grand prize of $45,000). However, this award is mainly an important source of recognition and will hopefully spread more awareness about what Open Bionics is doing. ‘I’m a great believer in finding more efficient ways of doing things. By embracing rapid prototyping techniques, Joel has initiated a step-change in the development of robotic limbs. Open Bionics opens doors to a community that might not have previously had access to advanced prosthetics,’ James Dyson said of the pick.

So what are the following months looking like? Joel Gibbard is aiming to take his prosthetics to market in the second half of 2016 (though they will also be released as open source), and is currently working in Los Angeles with the help of the Walt Disney Techstars Accelerator mentorship and investment program. Hopefully, this will help solve the final few problems, and the world will be able to start benefiting from Open Bionics very soon.


Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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