Apr. 11, 2015 | By Alec

We've been seeing so many wonderful examples of 3D printed prosthetics in recent years, that it almost goes without saying that 3D printing technology is a perfect and affordable alternative to traditional prosthetic production. However, bionic prostheses, rather than simple plastic constructions, surely form the future of aid to people missing limbs. That’s why we’ve been keeping an eye on the progress made by Bristol-based engineer and roboticist Joel Gibbard, who has been doing sterling work in the development of open-source, low-cost, 3D printed bionics arms.

Through his start-up Open Bionics, this has already resulted in a number of very promising designs. Especially his Open Hand Project is the stuff the future is made of. It recently resulted in the very useful Dextrus affordable bionic hand, partly thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign two years ago. Joel has since freely shared his designs on Instructables for all to use, and amputees and other people with disabilities have slowly but certainly begun to benefit from it.

It has since even made its way over to Iowa, miles and miles away from Bristol, where war hero Taylor has become the first wounded soldier to benefit from 3D printed bionic technology. Taylor is a very unfortunate hero, having become a quadruple amputee after losing his limbs in an IED blast while serving in Afghanistan. Fortunately, his friend Neal is an engineer and the duo has been working on adjusting Joel’s Dextrus designs for Taylor – whose current prosthetics just weren’t cutting it.

As they explained on Open Bionics’ website, they 3D printed the Dextrus designs on a Da Vinci 1.0 3D printer to function as a prototype. A you can see in the video below, the concept worked. By flexing his residual muscles (covered in EMG sensors), Taylor is capable of operating the Dextrus fingers as if it was a regular hand.

While still absolutely a work-in-progress, the idea is that this 3D printed bionic Dextrus prosthetic will then be extensively redesigned and transformed to serve as a prototype for future prosthetics. Among others, the pair plans on incorporating a 2-axis wrist, an elbow strap with push button tension adjustment and various grip modes. ‘In its completed form, this arm may not end up being the go-to for daily usage compared to the professional-made prosthetics that Taylor has, but that’s fine because this project will have served as the test bed for trying out new features and creating a control program to work as easily and intuitively as possible,’ Neal explains. ‘The next time Taylor is having a professional-made prosthetic arm put together, he will be able to provide this 3D-printed arm as an example of every feature and program behavior that he will want the new arm to include.’

Neal testing the sensors of the prosthetic.

The arm will thus serve as a testing ground for all prosthetic options you can think of, for which its low-cost has made it absolutely perfect. In fact, the pair estimates that this costs just one or two percent of the price of a traditional bionic prosthetic. ‘The use of 3D printing and open-source programming to enable rapid prototyping at low-cost, combined with having an open-source hand design like the Dextrus available to work with, have been crucial to making this project a reality.’

The prosthetic’s designer Joel has revealed that he is very happy to see other projects picking up and working with his own designs in an open-source manner. ‘This was always the goal, to release my designs and have incredible engineers like Neal take them and adapt them for their own purposes and to help someone else. It’s awesome to think a design I worked on in my bedroom at my parent’s house has been downloaded and built by people I’ve never met across the world,’ he writes. ‘It’s great that Neal is sharing his designs and ideas too. This is the fastest way to creating better prosthetics for the people who need them everywhere.’

True to that open-source spirit, Joel also invites everyone to work with his Dextrus bionic prosthetic in their own projects. Accordingly, you can download all 3D printable parts on Thingiverse here, and through Joel’s tutorial on Instructables, assemble it. But beware: this is a very difficult project to complete. While any 3D printer can theoretically be used to build it, the Dextrus bionic hand contains more than two dozen 3D printed parts, and lots of complicated assembly steps. Every finger includes a numerous moving parts, all of which have been threaded to a stepper motor, to replicate the human hand. However, it’s well worth checking out as this is probably the highest quality open source bionic hand currently available. It truly has the power to change peoples’ lives – both financially and in its applicability. 



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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