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Open Bionics co-founder Joel Gibbard

What is it?

3D printed, customisable, fully functioning bionic hands for amputees which are up to 20 times cheaper than traditional injection moulded bionic limbs.

How does it work?

The Open Bionics team use 3D scanners and printers to create completely customised bionic hands. The open source 3D manufacturing process means they can be matched to the size, design and functionality requirements of the amputee, and produced in a mere two days.

Who's behind it?

The co-founders of Open Bionics are award-winning roboticist and engineer Joel Gibbard, and former journalist Samantha Payne. The team also comprises mechanical engineer Jonathan Raines, software engineer Olly McBride and electronics engineer Patrick Brinson.

The co-founders of Open Bionics first met when Samantha was working as a journalist. She was really impressed with Joel's work following an interview and offered to help. They teamed up for Intel's Make It Wearable tech competition, launched Open Bionics in late 2014 and began the process of working with amputees to find out exactly what they need from bionic limbs.

“So many of the amputees we interviewed told us that cost was the main barrier to them having a bionic hand,” says Samantha. “Current devices on the market can cost £30,000-60,000.”

The injection moulding manufacturing process used for traditional bionic limbs is expensive, time-consuming and built for mass production, ruling out much of the critical customisability Open Bionics offers. Traditional bionic hands also require uncomfortable plaster casts to be taken and a three-four month wait for the finished product.

“The 3D printing materials per hand costs around £15,” says Samantha. “From the 3D scans we do, we can match the hand up to the person’s other hand or construct it based on the size of the residual limb.”

One of the biggest challenges the Open Bionics team has faced during the development of their prototypes is shrinking the size, and weight, of the components in their designs for children. They’ve also worked hard to reduce the weight of the hands in general.

“We initially assumed that dexterity would be the biggest priority for users,” says Samantha. “But we soon discovered from our user consultations that weight was the biggest consideration.” If hands are too heavy, it makes them uncomfortable to wear, so users end up taking them off. As a result of this insight, the team decided to reduce the number of motors in their designs. Although it meant less finger dexterity, it made the hands far lighter and more comfortable, and still allowed for important functionality such as grasping.

The team also had their assumptions challenged when it came to design. “We thought people would prefer plain colours that would match up with their existing hands. But our user discussions revealed people wanted customised colours, or even different designs for different days. Some even wanted super-human qualities to their bionic hands - the ability to lift heavy weights or hands that light up.

In summary 2015, Open Bionics won a place on the Disney Accelerator programme for tech innovators. It pushed back their development time by three months but Samantha says it was definitely worth the delay. As a result the company secured a royalty free licence from Marvel, allowing them to create superhero-branded bionic hands that are proving popular with their younger testers.

All of the Open Bionics manufacturing designs are open source which means non-profit organisations around the world have the ability to get the hands to those in need of them. For now, Samantha says the company is focusing on the UK and US markets where they already have a huge waiting list of people eager to put orders in when they formally launch.

The aim of the Inclusive Technology Prize was to inspire technological innovation from individuals and small businesses to improve or develop assistive living aids, adaptations, products and systems that will make a real difference to the lives of disabled people.