The Open Source, 3D Printed Bionic Arm Needs to Get a Lot Cheaper

Joel Gibbard wants to make robotic prosthetics both functional and more widely available to amputees.

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May 22 2015, 1:25pm

Photos: Emiko Jozuka

There have recently been some major advances in prosthetics with everything from mind-controlled limbs to Nigel Ackland's Terminator-esque bebionic3. But there's a problem. These devices either haven't hit the market yet, or if they have they're ultra-expensive and beyond the average person's reach.

Engineer and Open Bionics CEO Joel Gibbard aims to change that. He wants to make bionic prosthetics more affordable with his open source, 3D printed bionic arm, which was awarded second place at Intel's 'Make it Wearable' Challenge in 2014.

Gibbard's bionic arm is made out of NinjaFlex, which is a flexible 3D printed filament. The arm has batteries, inbuilt actuators which move individual fingers, and myoelectric sensors (IMES) that attach onto a user's arm. The IMES sensors read a wearer's muscle movements, converting these into electrical signals, which control and move the wearer's prosthetic fingers. The hand can currently open, close, and grip objects like a screwdriver handle, and pinch and pick up small things like chalk.

I caught up with Gibbard at London's 3D Printing Show to get the lowdown on his Dextrus robot arm. The bionic arm, said Gibbard, started out as a bedroom project when he was 17. Since then, Gibbard graduated with a degree in robotics from Plymouth University in 2011, worked as an engineer for two years at tech company National Instruments, before launching Open Bionics in 2013.

"Now it's more serious because we're looking at how we could bring this device to amputees in an accessible and affordable way," he told me.

Photos: Emiko Jozuka

Worldwide, there are roughly 11.4 million amputees today, according to Open Bionics' website. But Gibbard explained that most robotic prosthetics out there cost upwards of £20,000 ($31,300). Nigel Ackland's arm, for example, costs as much as $40,000. This means that most amputees just don't have access to them and either wear hooks, nothing at all, or simple non-robotic prosthetics. With his 3D printed bionic arm, Gibbard wants to make the technology both affordable, and cut down the actual time taken to fit and make a device for each individual wearer.

"We're trying to make the actual fitting process faster and smoother by using 3D scanning, and 3D printing to create a socket," he said. "The idea is to reduce traditional manufacturing methods for prosthetics by scanning someone in a few minutes and printing them a socket over night."

The bionic hand is currently pretty flexible, but Gibbard's goal is to make it even more humanlike in the future. "We're experimenting with multi-material prints now and looking at combining the best properties of several different materials," he told me. "Biologically you have bones in your hands made of hard material, then you have skin, which is flexible and soft. We want to try and replicate that with the design of the robotic hand, then print the whole thing in one piece so that the manufacturing is fast and cheap."

But it's not exactly easy making a low-cost and effective bionic arm. "One of the hardest things was making sure the device had enough battery life and was lightweight enough so that it would fit a range of different people," said Gibbard, who explained how Open Bionics is currently embedding everything from the batteries and the actuators into the prosthetic itself.

While Gibbard's hand is still in the prototype stage, and not yet commercially available, he wants it to hit the market in around a year at around $3,000. But he ultimately wants to cut costs to as low as $1,000.