An affordable bionic hand designed and engineered by Joel Gibbard of Open Bionics has won the 2015 James Dyson Award. Leveraging the advantages 3D printing allowed Gibbard and his team to design a weight-saving, aesthetic design amputees prefer.
Gibbard first started thinking about a robotic hand design when he was just a 17-year-old struck by the thought that his ambition to create a fleet of robots might someday be thwarted by the loss of a limb. Later at university, Gibbard designed robotic prosthetics using 3D printing.
Today, 3D printing fuels major and rapid advances in prosthetics making it possible for amputees to have sensory enhanced limbs that look and function like real limbs. But such models, of course, come at a high price. Access to the latest prosthetic models is a major issue for the reportedly more than 11 million amputees worldwide, the majority of whom manage without limbs while others rely on bulky and expensive prosthetics.
Open Bionics began as the Open Hand Project, an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for Gibbard’s research and development. Backed by over a thousand contributors, the Open Hand Project allowed Gibbered to experiment with versions of his Dextrus hand design. Most parts of Dextrus are 3D printed bringing down manufacturing cost substantially. Gibbard’s design enabled the hand to grasp objects, making the prosthetic function just like a human hand. The open source blueprints can be downloaded by anyone anywhere with an internet connection for free.
The availability of prosthetic designs by engineers like Gibbard and others associated with organizations like Enable the Future has triggered a revolution of sorts in the prosthetics industry. Amputees in need of hand prosthetics are connecting with 3D printing enthusiasts, many of them hobbyists, to obtain customized, affordable prosthetics quickly. Gibbard’s hand takes about 40 hours to print, while the socket takes another 40. These savings in time and cost translate to easier access to prosthetics for amputees.
In preparation of bringing the hand to market, Gibbard launched Open Bionics. Interviews conducted with amputees by him and Samantha Payne, the company’s CEO, have led to design changes. Now their focus is on the hand as an inter-changeable tool, even a fashion accessory. Amputees they interviewed were concerned about the weight and the look of the hand.
The emphasis on prosthetics as an aesthetically functional object is a direct consequence of 3D printing technologies, the increasing use of electronics, and the efforts of designers and prosthetic innovators like Aimee Mullins and Hugh Herr of MIT. Open Bionics joins the increasing number of organizations and individuals revolutionizing the prosthetics industry.
Krina Patel is a writer/illustrator and educator committed to building provider-patient relationships. Dr. Patel’s doctoral research on the body and cognition at Harvard University and her experience adopting and promoting technology in education brings her to her current work in the health and technology sector. Follow her on Twitter, @positivelylearn.
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