Cheap 3D-Printed Prosthetics Are Within Reach
Researchers are making 3D-printed prosthetics more affordable, efficient and smarter with open-source code and everyday materials.
This program was produced by the Marketing Department of WIRED and Ars in collaboration with CA Technologies.
A few years ago, amputees had to pay outrageous prices for prosthetics: An arm with a functioning hand could cost up to $100,000. When Minas Liarokapis heard this number, he was a Ph.D. student in robotics. It was his “aha” moment.
“Everyday people didn’t have access to efficient prosthetics that are affordable and lightweight,” Liarokapis remembers. “I said, ‘OK, we can fix that. Let’s come up with a clever solution.’” The robotics researcher realized he could use some of the same technology behind the robotic arm to help amputees.
New Hope for Amputees
In 2013, Liarokapis founded OpenBionics, a nonprofit that creates low-cost and lightweight prosthetics, along with the help of three other researchers and a few advisors and collaborators. With materials costing as little as $120, anyone with OpenBionics' open-source code can make a prosthetic hand with a 3-D printer, polyurethane, silicone and ABS plastics.
The initiative is part of a growing movement to make prosthetic limbs as affordable, efficient and smart as possible. The Open Prosthetics Project unites several of these designers and engineers so that they can swap information freely.
“I don’t see competitors; we all have the same goal,” said Liarokapis, now a post-doctoral researcher in robotics at Yale University. “We want to provide new solutions to amputees around the world."
One Motor, 144 Gestures
OpenBionics innovated a differential mechanism that controls 144 gestures with a single motor—rather than the several motors that had been typical of prosthetics. Motors are the priciest components of prosthetic limbs, and just one motor makes up half the cost of OpenBionics’ hand. The proposed differential mechanism uses mechanical buttons that constrain the motion of each finger, enabling wearers to choose different combinations of fingers to move.
In the near future, the OpenBionics team hopes to collaborate with so-called hackerspaces around the world to make it easy for amputees to walk into a store and eventually print an accessible prosthetic. (Today, amputees are trying out the hands on an unofficial basis, though the OpenBionics team hopes to do clinical trials soon.)
The hands are tailored to each person using a 3D camera that scans their remaining limbs for a sense of proportion. Anthropomorphic materials and designs make the prosthetics feel more humanlike.
Everyday people didn’t have access to efficient prosthetics that are affordable and lightweight. I said, ‘OK, we can fix that. Let’s come up with a clever solution.’
— Minas Liarokapis, founder, OpenBionics
Building a Better Grip
As the team iterates on its existing designs, Liarokapis can envision a day when he’ll even help improve the grip of able-bodied people and prosthetic wearers alike. A strong man can pinch with around 80 newtons (N) of force. “Image if you could exert 150 N using some device,” he said. “The possibilities and applications are endless.”
“Grasping seems so simple, but it's so important in our lives,” Liarokapis continued. “I don’t like saying ‘we’re changing lives’—it's too much. We’re just some guys proposing new solutions. If I'm able to give the opportunity to a little girl or little boy to grasp better, I will be happy.”