Nov.4, 2014 | By Alec

Could bionic prosthetics become an affordable and practical reality in the near future? If it's up to Joel Gibbard, mastermind behind the Bristol-based prosthetic company Open Bionics it certainly is. Joel and his promising company have already given us a sneak peek into that future last week, when we reported on an 3D printed, Star Wars-like prosthetic Joel and his team made for a student.

But now Open Bionics have received an incredible and well-deserved boost by winning the second prize in Intel's design competition, along with the $100,000 prize that accompanies it. Joel was already aiming to release affordable 3D printed bionic prosthetics on the market in a year's time, but this wonderful victory will only stimulate his inspiring work. It looks like the future of the Open Bionics, and of amputees everywhere, is starting to look pretty good.

On Saturday 1 November, Joel pitched his 3D printed prosthetic hand to the panel of judges in San Francisco. Earlier in 2014, Open Bionics was already picked for the top-ten shortlist of entries for Intel's 'Make it wearable' competition, out of a long list of 400 promising start ups.

At stake last weekend was the very coveted first prize, worth $500,000, but Joel must've have done wonderfully to win the second prize. That already is a testimony to both the potential of 3D printing technology, and Open Bionics' wonderful and inspiring concept.

First prize was claimed by Nixie, who entered with a concept for a wearable bracelet that can transform into a quadcopter. A cool concept, but it doesn't quite help the needy like Joel's bionics. Third place, which is good for a very respectable $100,000, was awarded to ProGlove, a concept to develop smart gloves.

The 'Make it wearable' competition started a year ago, as a global initiative sponsored by Intel to support the evolution of wearable technology. Students (ages 13 and up, except where prohibited), designers, engineers, and makers were invited to participate. As stated on the website of Intel, 'Wearables are the next frontier in the evolution of computing. MAKE IT WEARABLE aims to identify innovative ideas that bring Intel's vision to life: technology that fits into people's lives seamlessly and improves daily life in a meaningful way.'

The ten finalists, who hailed from all over the planet, presented their concepts to panel and were judged on concept, feasibility, market demand and human impact. All final concepts were powered by Intel Edison, and featured entries like a wearable camera that flies, a bionic mattress for babies in the neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU), a sports necklace for athletes and a bracelet that manages body temperature. As Intel CEO Brian Krzanich explained:

We selected judges for the 'Make it Wearable' panel that also see unlimited potential for fashionable, personal expression in wearables and are excited for wearable creations that best marry form and function. Wearables are in their infancy. Collaboration between entrepreneurs and experts in technology, design, retail, fashion and fitness will be necessary for the development of wearables that solve real problems, integrate into lifestyles and that people will love.

Perhaps due to a 3D printing bias, we were especially impressed with the concept of Open Bionics. Their whole prosthetic approach revolves around one simple philosophy: creating low-cost, high-functioning prosthetics with open-source parts that can help people everywhere.

As Joel explained in his video pitch (bottom of the page), 'The prosthetics market at the moment has a couple of different classes of devices. You have things like hooks operated by pulleys, and then at the really high end of the market you have really advanced robotic prosthetics. But these are so expensive, very few people can actually afford them, so we're trying to fill the market of low-cost, but high function.'

As Joel explained, human hands are comprised of 29 bones, 34 muscles and 123 ligaments — which means a lot of different components that need to be perfectly operated to function as a whole. 'The hand itself is a marvel of ingenuity utilizing steel cables for tendons, electric motors for muscles, and 3D printed parts acting as skin and bone.'

To control and steer the whole construction, the Open Bionics team therefore used the Intel Edison board in combination with their own circuit board. This will also allow the hand to properly respond to signals from the amputee wearing the device.

And the key to keeping all this affordable is 3D printing technology. While prosthetics currently on the market are often made from metals like titanium, Joel and his team resorted to printing parts in ABS filament.

While a metal prosthetic can quickly cost up to $15.000 and up, the material costs for the prototypes at Open Bionics are more in the region of just a few pounds (less than $10). Holding up a finger, Joel remarked that it wouldn't even cost a single pound to produce it. While electronics will still be quite expensive, this means bionic prosthetics could become available for a fraction of the current price.

Though we still have to wait a while before these promising and affordable 3D printed creations become available, this second prize in the Intel competition is very promising. Before winning, Joel already remarked that he intends to use the funding bring these prosthetics to the market as soon as possible and to develop a special line for children who lost their hands.

As Joel remarked at the end of his pitch, 'To see somebody walking down the street, wearing one of our hands. I'd just run up to them and shake their hand. I think that's the ideal future.' Fortunately, the Intel judges saw how this concept is set to change to lives of people everywhere. Let's just hope Joel's dreams become reality as soon as possible.

Check out Open Bionics' video pitch here:

Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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lorraine Payne wrote at 11/4/2014 8:15:30 PM:

Amazing, this will make such a differance to people's lives, I watched the video of the student shaking his brothers hand, what a differance this will make, very impressed and excited for Joel and the team, well done, well deserved

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