Innovation from Diversity

UK-based company, Open Bionics, is certainly living up to their company motto: ‘Turning disabilities into superpowers.’ Last week, they released their newest prosthetic arm, dubbed the ‘Hero Arm.’ This assistive device differs dramatically from traditional prosthetic arms – both in appearance and performance. Rather than imitate a biological arm, the Hero Arm embraces an artificial design. In turn, this allowed Open Bionics to create a prosthetic that allows wearers to do much more in an easier fashion.

Open Bionics’ co-founder, Samantha Payne, firmly believes this future-oriented innovation stems from the company’s 50:50 gender split amongst employees. According to Payne, “the best products are made by diverse engineering teams.” Creating this balanced work environment is quite an accomplishment as well. According to an article from Andrew Hobbs, “That diversity is no mean achievement: at last year’s UK Robotics Week, UK-RAS (the UK’s umbrella organisation for robotics research) revealed figures saying that across all science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) careers, 83 percent of workers are male. In coding and computer science, the figure is closer to 90 percent male and ten percent female.”

Girl with Hero Arm

Children as young as eight can be fitter with the Hero Arm.

3D Printing’s Impact

Payne co-founded Open Bionics with a robotics engineer, Joel Gibbard, back in 2014, and since the company’s inception, 3D printing has been used to create bionic arms much more efficiently and less expensive. With 3D printing and sophisticated CAD design software, Gibbard and his team of engineers were able to produce hundreds of prototypes. The perfection of these bionic arm designs and prototypes is what led to the creation of the Hero Arm. Soon, Open Bionics will make their refined software open source which will allow both developers and users to both experiment and fine tune the prosthetic.

It is estimated that there are nearly 66,000 amputees in the UK. Despite this figure, prosthetic options are very limited. Hobbs explains:

“Most existing upper limb prostheses exist as simple hooks or grippers, offering limited functionality and mechanical actions that lack the dexterity needed to carry out many everyday tasks.”

3D Scanners have a tremendous impact across a wide variety of industries.

Adding to this issue, getting fit for a prosthetic limb can be a grueling process as many refinements are required over time based of individual patients’ feedback on performance and functionality. Often times, prosthetic times can cause swelling in patients’ arms which makes this process even more complicated.

In addition to this, bionic hands are extremely expensive (sometimes costing over $60,000) – that is, until the release of the Hero Arm.  Thanks to 3D scanning and 3D printing technologies, Open Bionics saved thousands of dollars in their creation of the Hero Arm. This allowed them to make the Hero Arm ‘the most affordable bionic arm or hand currently available.’ By using 3D scanning, they are able to fully customize the design to ensure it is perfectly fitting for each individual patient. By 3D printing the Hero Arm, Open Bionics can produce a brand new prosthetic, on site and in under 2 days.

Accolades & Features.

Open Bionics received much praise for this groundbreaking creation before it ever came to fruition which allowed them to perfect the Hero Arm. They have received:

  • The 2015 James Dyson Award – an international design award that celebrates, encourages and inspires the designers of new problem-solving ideas.
  • A Wired Social Innovation Award in 2016 for social innovation
  • The UAE AI & Robotics Award for Good which carries a $1 million award

Open Bionics Hero Arm wearers

The Hero Arm can be customized to the wearers taste, even replicating sci-fi and Disney characters.

These awards, and the rewards they carried, allowed Open Bionics to fund the Hero Arm project.

Hobbs provides the product features in his article which commemorates the Hero Arm:

  • Works using sensors to detect the muscles in the wearer’s arm – in much the same way that contracting and relaxing those muscles controls a biological hand.
  • Lights, sounds, and vibrations: a suite of tools that gives wearers feedback on the status of their bionic hand.
  • Lightweight: the full prosthesis weighs less than 1kg.
  • Custom covers, which allow wearers to show their own style and create different looks for different outfits.
  • Posable wrist, which can be rotated through 180 degrees.
  • Posable thumb, to help the wearer pick up small objects.
  • Ages eight and up: for the first time, a multi-grip myoelectric prosthesis is available for children.
  • Proportional control, which allows wearers to control the speed of finger movements for delicate tasks.

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