With an estimated 11.4 million amputees worldwide, a Bristol-based 3D printing company, Open Bionics, says that it can scan an amputee and build (or rather, print) a custom-fitted prosthetic forearm and hand in less than two days. That's super fast, given that current prosthetic models on the market take weeks or even months to develop.
Founder Joel Gibbard's company also just won the James Dyson Award, recognizing young and talented engineers in the UK, and plans to start selling his prosthetics by next year. The prize money included a £2,220 ($3,485 USD) reward and a chance to compete for an international title worth £28,600 ($45,000 USD).
For Gibbard, it's all about cost-effectiveness and speed of production. A focus on both is what he feels will give his product a competitive advantage.
"We have a device at the lower-end of the pricing scale and upper end of functionality," he tells BBC. "At the same time it is very lightweight and it can be customized for each person."
The 25-year-old inventor describes the hand as a skeleton with a customizable skin on top of it. Other prosthetic hands with finger mobility usually run up to about £20,000 ($31,394 USD) and £60,000 ($94,181 USD), but Gibbard is looking to charge customers only £2,000 ($3,140 USD), including the cost of fitting. This is also good news for families with children who might need the device but can't afford the exorbitant cost, as they'd otherwise have to constantly buy new prosthetics for their growing bodies.
So, how does this device work, and why is it so cheap in comparison to its potential competitors?
For starters, the Open Bionics prosthetic device was birthed out of an Indiegogo crowdfunding project supported by Bristol Robotics Laboratory in 2013 as an open source initiative for making accessible and affordable robot prosthetic hands for amputees. It raised £43,593 ($68,428 USD) in a month's time with the support of over 1,000 funders.
The hand itself utilizes myoelectric signals to detect muscle movements via sensors attached to the owner's skin. It uses these to control their grip. The device detects the flexing of muscles on the forearm to open and close the grip of the hand, with a double flex to form a pinch grip.
The technology isn't advanced enough yet for the owners to sense and feel what they're touching, but the sensors do detect the pressure exerted to interact with an object. What this means is that the owner can hold and use fragile objects like eggs without breaking them.
Naturally, however, because of the decreased costs, there is also a compromise on design and engineering.
"We are testing [the device] 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," Gibbard says.
The design for the device has been revised over 10 times, and the number of moving parts has been removed significantly. This is part of the reason why they're quick and easy to put together — a user can be sized up in a matter of minutes, and then, all the necessary parts can be 3D-printed within 40 hours.
Although the current design can only help amputees with limb loss to their forearms, Gibbard and his team's ultimate goal is to provide inexpensive prosthetics to amputees with other needs as well. This, however, is still a ways down the road.