On a rainy day back in 2007 sixth former Joel Gibbard found himself tinkering around at his house in Bristol. In a bid to occupy his over-active mind, he decided to try and make an artificial hand. The 17-year-old raided draws and cupboards to find his materials – string for the tendons, sheet aluminium which he cut up and folded to make the joints of the fingers and, of course, Superglue to stick it all together.
The moment he’d been waiting for.
Much to his surprise, his creation actually worked and this initial success was enough to inspire Joel to take the project further. He tinkered around with further prototypes but then his idea was left on the shelf until he was tasked with a final year project at university in Plymouth. This was the moment he’d been waiting for.
“It felt like unfinished business so when I had the opportunity to re-visit the project I jumped at the chance”, said Joel. “I was studying Robotics and what struck me immediately was how advancements in technology had opened up a whole new world of possibilities and the more I looked into it the more I realized that there was an urgent need for low-cost robotic prosthetics.”
Prosthetics can now be built to fit
Now 24, Joel and business partner Sammy Payne, who met at the University of Plymouth, have spent the last year fine-tuning a low-cost hi-tech robotic prosthetic hand which they hope will retail for under $1000. This sort of price tag has only recently become realistic thanks to the affordability of 3D printing with 3D printers now available for around £1,000. Traditionally, the cost of 3D printing has made the prototyping process very expensive but new low cost, high efficiency printing means that it’s now possible to customize every single model to fit the amputee.
Joel and Sammy’s work has been recognised by reaching the finalist stage of Intel’s Make It Wearable Challenge, a global initiative designed to inspire game changing wearable technology.
Joel added: “What started as a bit of fun has become incredibly important to us on both a professional and a personal level – professionally we’ve got a real passion for robotics and want to perfect the technology. However, the more time we spent with amputees the more we realized that this can completely transform people’s lives. Every time you hear another personal story you just want to be able to help.
“Prosthetics are still a long way from where they need to be – often the manufacturer is not selling to the end user, it’s often to a clinic, hospital or insurance company. New technology means we can tailor the model to the exact specifications of the amputee and Sammy spends a lot of time making sure we get this right. The most important thing is that they’re happy.
The potential to do even more
“We are developing a prototype at the moment and hoping to be selling devices in late 2015. We need to perfect some of our processes but we’re aiming to get the cost under $1,000.
“The long term opportunity is for technology to revolutionize the prosthetics industry as a whole. We want to use 3D scanning and printing to make it much more accessible and much cheaper but it doesn’t just have to apply to hands, it can go much further and we believe the technology we are hoping to pioneer will have the potential to do even more.”