There are an estimated 5 million upper limb amputees worldwide, many of them children. Prosthetic limbs can cost upwards of $40,000 or more, and children rapidly outgrow them. Because the cost of prosthetics is prohibitive, many children simply go without them.
Now a company called Open Bionics, creator of multi-grip 3D-printed devices for child amputees, has created an affordable alternative using 3D scanning and printing technologies. Their 3-D printed prosthetics, based on Iron Man, Star Wars, and popular Disney characters, can be produced at a fraction of the cost of traditional prosthetics. The process uses a 3D printer to create the hand in four separate parts, which is then custom-built to fit the patient using scans of the body. The devices use myoelectric skin sensors to detect muscle movements, which can be used to control the hand and open and close the fingers. According to a blog post on the company’s website, the customized bionic arms can be manufactured in under 24 hours and are light and small enough for children as young as eight, with a socket that adjusts as the child grows. After an initial 6-month clinical trial with seven children, the Bristol UK-based company was awarded a product development contract from National Health Service (NHS) England. A new trial is in progress with 15 children and young people from NHS clinics around the UK. If the current NHS trial succeeds, the NHS hopes to be able to offer 3D printed advanced bionic arms to thousands of children.
Arguably one of the best things about the bionic limbs for kids, beyond the ability to do everyday tasks again, is how “cool” the prototypes look. Said one young recipient, 11-year-old Tilly Lockey, the bionic hand “looks awesome and it makes you feel confident. Instead of people thinking they feel sorry for you because you don’t have a hand, they’re like: ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a cool hand!’”