Open Bionics founder Samantha Payne and 11-year-old prosthesis wearer Tilly / Images: Michael Newington Gray
Nov 13, 2016 | By Benedict
British 3D printed prosthetics specialist Open Bionics has explained the thinking behind its open-source, child-friendly “superhero” prostheses. Founder Samantha Payne gave a talk about her company’s 3D printed robotic hands at the WIRED Next Generation event on November 5.
There are several companies around the world whose goal is to increase the availability of affordable, DIY prosthetic devices for amputees and members of the limb-different community. Few, however, are quite as memorable as Open Bionics. The Bristol-based designer is known for its 3D printable Ada Hand, but has also produced a handful of incredibly eye-catching prostheses for children, including this Star Wars prosthetic arm and these Iron Man and Frozen prostheses. The 3D printing files and schematics for the Ada Hand are free to download, but the company also sells pre-built versions for £569 ($709).
Many people who require prosthetic limbs—especially children—can be insecure about their prosthetic devices. As such, most prosthetic limbs are made to look as close to organic ones as possible, making them mostly unnoticeable. Open Bionics, however, has been looking at the issue in a different light: children who require prostheses are given an opportunity to completely reinvent themselves, and the scope of that reinvention is incredibly wide. Of course, some children will want to choose subtle and natural-looking prostheses, but other will want the exact opposite—they will want to become superheroes.
Speaking at the WIRED Next Generation event last weekend, Open Bionics founder Samantha Payne explained how her company’s 3D printed, superhero-inspired robot arms are helping youngsters gain confidence and become the people they want to be. With designs inspired by Frozen, Iron Man, Star Wars, and more, limb-different kids have, rather than suffering any kind of setback, been able to forge powerful identities. “Who’s to say what your replacement hand should look like? It’s an expression of yourself,” Payne said at the event, before adding: “We want to change children who have limb differences into bionic superheroes.”
The 3D printed Ada Hand from Open Bionics
Thanks to 3D scanning and 3D printing technology, Open Bionics estimates that its bionic hands are around 20 times cheaper than those traditionally offered to people by doctors. This has given the two million upper limb amputees from around the world a chance to obtain a functional, high-quality prosthetic limb—something that would have been unattainable for most of those people just a few years ago. “These [prostheses] previously existed in science fiction but today they’re a reality,” Payne said.
Open Bionics consists of a four-person robotics team that is able to produce customized bionic arms in just three days. Despite this rapid turnover, the team decided that the only way to provide everyone with attainable prostheses was to make the 3D printable devices open-source. This way, people from all over the world can build their own prostheses at any time—something that Payne has found incredibly rewarding. On one occasion, an American veteran messaged the Open Bionics founder to tell her that he had printed and assembled his own prosthesis.
By making its 3D printed robotic hand design fully open, Open Bionics knows that designers will have a chance to tinker with the design to make it even better. According to the company, this process is invaluable, and will help to make the 3D printed devices as effective as they can possibly be. “When you’re open source you open your technology to millions of other people who want to improve it,” Payne said. “You advance it much faster than if there were just four of us in a robotics lab.”
Open Bionics superhero prostheses for children
Since its inception in 2014, Open Bionics has grown at a rapid pace, even winning a $250,000 prize at Intel’s “Make it Wearable” challenge. No matter how big the company gets, however, Payne believes that helping children feel good about themselves is, and will always be, the top priority. “These prosthetics enable children to do more of the activities their peers can do, but they also make them feel more empowered about what they can do themselves,” Payne said.