Little could the young Joel Gibbard have ever imagined that those Meccano games he once used to play with as a child, would one day lead him to become Britain’s Design Engineer of the Year amongst other prestigious awards. Open Bionics, the Bristol-based company he founded, aims at providing low-cost robotic hands. I got to know Joel during the 3D Printshow in Berlin and attended to his interesting conference.

Only a few years after the Mecano games, whilst studying robotics, did Joel Gibbard start to grow a certain interest for prosthetics. It started, as he said, as an excuse for his professors to do a project on this particular topic, and not just because robots are fun and cool. There are an estimated 11.4 million hand amputees worldwide and usually, the costs for prosthetics are unaffordable for those who need them.

There, he realized that his hobby could have a real impact and change the life of so many individuals. The first prototypes he designed were made in aluminium. However, a real step forward was taken, once he started working with 3D printing. The first time he became aware of the existence of this new technology came from a review he once read. The review ultimately concluded that 3D printing could not be applied to prosthetics/medical purposes. Nevertheless, this never discouraged Joel’s determination and his new 3D printing approach, today, allows designs to be much cheaper and replicable.

 Joel Gibbard during the conference

Joel Gibbard during the conference

In fact, Joel plans to lower the costs of robotic prosthetic devices under $1,000. By using free software for their design and development, Joel hopes that 3D scanning and printing will enable the production of prosthetics not only affordable and comfortable, but also cool to wear. Trying to mimic skin color is not necessarily the best option, as some people may feel their prosthetic as something to hide, or to be ashamed of.

In a totally opposite line of attack, Joel suggests eye-catching devices that people, and especially children, could be proud to wear. With this idea in mind, Open bionics developed a prosthetic with an integrated LED light in the palm of the hand, in a clear Ironman style. This way, incorporating additional functionalities, such as this ‘superhero’ feature, the user could have a personalized prosthetic by customizing it.

At the end of the conference, Daniel Melville, Open Bionics’ first pilot, joined Joel on stage to show his red robotic hand, which he is delighted to own and very proud of. The hand is provided with EMG sensors that pick up forearm muscle movements, which then translate them into a gesture or movement of the hand.

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Joel Gibbard and Daniel Melville

Furthermore, during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, Joel Gibbard declared: “Another thing we’re working on is making the robotic hand completely wireless. Our next step is to have a fully integrated hand that is one unit. It has to be so easy-to-use that Dan can just pick it up, put it on, start using it immediately without any wires, and then re-charge it at night.”

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A little souvenir from the conference

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