Since Easton LaChappelle was 14 years old, he has been building robotic arms. He made his first one using LEGO, fishing wire and electrical tubing. Over the years, he has improved his model to the point where he brought it to both the White House Science Fair in 2013 and TED Talks in the same year. Now at age 19, Easton has updated his website Unlimited Tomorrow to include the instructions for how you, too, can build your own robotic arm using a 3D printer.
The instructions are available for free after you agree to a Creative Commons license. All the tools, print settings and steps are included. For example, here is Step One: “We are first going to assemble all five fingers. Every finger except the thumb is built from a single tip, joint and knuckle. The thumb is built from a thumb tip, thumb joint, and a joint. Each finger uses three M3 x 20mm bolts with a locking nut which lock into the pieces. There are two different finger variations. One has the bolt head facing to the right of the finger the other has it facing to the left (see picture). The thumb can only be assembled one way and the thumb joint has a ridge that is facing the left of the finger.”
Not including the cost of the 3D printer, the robotic arm should cost around $350 to build. Considering that the prices of 3D printers decrease each year, Easton’s open source solution is a tremendous boon for those who cannot afford myoelectric prostheses, the costs of which can range from $10,000 to $50,000, and upwards to $100,000.
Granted, the do-it-yourself nature of the cheaper arm will not allow for a more natural appearance or advanced flexion and rotation like in more expensive models. But the low cost should give people in impoverished areas and nations an attractive option that features basic functionality, including nine degrees of freedom, finger control, wrist and bicep rotation, elbow articulation and shoulder flexion and extension movements.
The potential of open source, do-it-yourself prosthetics is exciting to think about. For instance, a company like Google, Microsoft, Apple, or a startup could improve the technology and make it available to a wider base of potential wearers. In a few years, we could start seeing do-it-yourself robotic arms with better functionality for even cheaper prices.