The co-founder of Open Bionics, Samantha Payne, explains how the manufacturer is developing affordable, 3D printed artificial limbs that users can get excited about — which is by all accounts, an industry first. Could this Bristol start-up be paving the way for the future of bionic technology?
Prosthetic and bionic technology has come a long way in recent years as more advanced components and functions are squeezed into products, allowing users to perform more complex actions. Some researchers have even begun developing prototype products that allow the user to feel as though they are using a biological limb.
But some barriers have remained constant to manufacturers even as technology has advanced. Creating equipment that is low-cost to produce is difficult in prosthetics and making items that users, and particularly children, want to wear and are not embarrassed by is another huge challenge for suppliers.
Looking to tear down these barriers is a Bristol start-up called Open Bionics which is developing 3D printed bionic limbs that are cheap to produce and importantly, exciting to wear for the user. It is targeting a gap in the market and if it takes off it could change the lives of users and establish the business a leading player in the sector.
Samantha Payne, Open Bionics’ co-founder, told an audience at Naidex recently that the company is trying to squeeze into the gap where competitor companies have been unable to fill because of their generally expensive technology. The high-cost of mainstream products currently on the market she says, means few consumers are able to buy the products and the NHS is likewise unable to afford them.
Open Bionics uses 3D printing instead of metal to create bionic hands and limbs, which makes them cheaper and gives them potential to sell in greater volume to private customers as well as the NHS. In fact, it believes it can produce a personalised bionic hand for under £5,000 and much quicker than private providers, which have a price point of around £60,000 for a multi-grip bionic arm. The outfit’s recently-launched Hero Arm claims to be the most affordable multi-grip bionic arm ever, at half the price of its nearest competitor.
“We wanted to build Iron Man’s actual hand; this thing that they might have seen as a source of weakness suddenly becomes their greatest strength and it’s a piece of really cool technology, almost from the comic books”
Payne explains that the company has spent the last four years making and testing a bionic hand that has a full range of movement. The fact that it can be 3D printed makes it much more suitable for children as they can be built small enough. But creating artificial limbs for children comes with its own problem, which is getting them accepted by and liked by the user. But for this, Open Bionics has an ace up its sleeve.
Payne says: “We are really focused on making the limbs very beautiful and very desirable. We don’t make skin-toned limbs, we take our inspiration from science fiction. So we want to offer choice to amputees. [One user’s] arm actually lights up, she has LEDs on her arm and she can choose to swap the colours. You can choose your own colour, you can choose your own theme and we have also partnered with companies like Disney, Star Wars and Marvel to create super hero hands.
“The reason we felt this was really important was because we really wanted to challenge what it meant to have a limb difference and how children’s peers viewed that difference and how they understand it. They would question something that they didn’t understand and use that difference as a negativity. So we wanted to build Iron Man’s actual hand; this thing that they might have seen as a source of weakness suddenly becomes their greatest strength and it’s a piece of really cool technology, almost from the comic books. It’s something that their other friends will never be able to have.”
Payne says that in this context, a product like Iron Man’s hand suddenly stops being ‘just a prosthetic’ and is instead an empowering tool that has super-human functions. She says that when the company began redesigning one of its prototypes it asked itself whether if it was building a human hand from scratch, would it limit itself to what a hand can do?
It then set about hosting workshops with amputees and Open Bionics asked them to design their own hands with their own ideas. Many of the children’s designs came back with lots of bright ideas including integration with consumer technology such as Apple products. When the firm built its first Iron Man hand then, it made sure the product worked like the character’s hand. For example, when the user flicks their hand up a light is activated.
Open Bionics has certainly hit a niche in the market. So far, consumers have responded well to the prototypes and with the added benefit of 3D printing and the associated cost reductions, the company has a real opportunity to achieve volume in sales. It is an exciting time for artificial limb technology and the Bristol company is at the forefront of its development. It is partly Payne’s view that the future of bionic limbs is as empowering devices rather than just tools, that is driving the company’s evolution.
She concludes: “We’re really interested to see how style will affect limb adoption and we are engaged at the moment with a trial across three sets of children aged eight to 17. The test has identified this technology as one thing they would like to adopt and we’re pitching it at a price point they can actually afford and so it’s working with patients and making sure it’s right for them and to see whether it changes. All of this is so new so we don’t actually know the answers yet, but we’re really looking forward to having that data. The early signs are very cool.”