3D printed hand – a real game changer

When I came across the Open Hand Project on Twitter, my Enabled by Design-sense immediately started to tingle (it’s a […]

When I came across the Open Hand Project on Twitter, my Enabled by Design-sense immediately started to tingle (it’s a bit like Spiderman’s spidey-sense but doesn’t necessitate muggers) and I had to find out more.

The Open Hand Project is, in a word, brilliant. Started in his bedroom by Joel Gibbard, the project has resulted in the development of an incredible robotic hand, made largely of components created on a home 3D printer. The Dextrus hand, as it is known, uses electric motors instead of muscles and steel cables instead of tendons. The 3D printed plastic parts work like bones and a rubber coating acts as the skin. The hand can then be connected to an existing prosthesis, using stick-on electrodes to read signals from the wearers muscles, telling the hand and fingers to move.

The project is open-source, and once development is complete details will be published freely online with no patents, meaning anyone has the right to make their own and even sell it themselves.

Now, regular visitors to this site may know that 3D printing is something that Enabled by Design has been following with acute interest for some time. Back in November I was fortunate enough to play a (very) small part in the fantastic Enabled by Design-athon in which 3D printing played a significant part, allowing teams to quickly and easily produce prototypes of their designs. Subsequently, Team EbD travelled to Austin, Texas to extol the virtues and potential of 3D Printing at South By Southwest (SXSW), the biggest technology conference of its kind in the world.

The Open Hand Project has real potential to make this amazing technology available to those who could really benefit from it, not just those who can afford it.

Bionic prosthetics and enhancements have been around a while – in fact I had a myoelectric prosthetic arm as a small child. It was an electric hand that was operated by electrodes that sensed muscle movements in the arm which in turn triggered the hand to open and close. Sadly it was a little far ahead of its time and had significant drawbacks. Not only was it uncomfortable to put on, it was also extremely heavy and unwieldy, making its usage for a 5-year-old child very limited.

The development in technology since those days in the mid-80s (giving my age away) has been mind-blowing. Bionics that are fitted directly to the nervous system of amputees and other disabled people, are no longer the stuff of science-fiction, they are really happening.

What makes The Open Hand Project so exciting is that it has real potential to make this technology accessible to those that can really benefit from it, and not just those lucky enough to take part in research projects, or with significant financial resources to pay for the most cutting-edge treatment. In reality this means that people in developing countries could have access to prosthetic limbs that would be genuinely life-changing.

At present, Joel estimates that bionic or robotic hands similar to his cost upwards of 100,000 US dollars. If the project proves a success, it’s estimated that the hands can be produced for a tenth of that cost – under £620. Watch this space.

Joel is using crowd-funding platform Indiegogo to raise funds to continue development of the project. If you’re interested in contributing to The Open Hand Project, a link to the Indiegogo page can be found here: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-open-hand-project-a-low-cost-robotic-hand

Kindly written for Enabled by Design by Paul Carter