Joel Gibbard, founder of bristol-based robotics company openbionics holds a prosthetic hand

Profile: Open Bionics: creating affordable and accessible robotic prostheses

19th August 2014

Joel holding DextrusBristol-based Open Bionics is creating affordable 3D-printed hands to make robotic prosthetics cheaper and more accessible to amputees all over the world.

Currently prosthetic hands are not available on the NHS and can cost tens of thousands of pounds, which is inaccessible to most individuals who have lost a limb. Joel Gibbard, founder of The Open Hand Project and Open Bionics, created his first robotic hand at the age of 17 with cheap household objects and discovered he could make a powerful change to the lives of amputees.

We caught up with Joel for the lowdown on his robotic protheses and the progress he is making with children’s protheses.

“I started the Open Hand Project because robotic hands were a very cool technology, “explains Joel, “but one that was extremely expensive. I wanted to help amputees gain access to this awesome technology. The objective of the Open Hand Project was to create an open source robotic hand so that people could build their own. Now I want to manufacture hands and sell them to amputees at an affordable price so I created Open Bionics to serve this market.”

“The objective of the Open Hand Project was to create an open source robotic hand so that people could build their own”

 

Joel started up the Open Hand Project in 2013 and raised over £40,000 through crowd-funding site Indiegogo to fund development of the Dextrus hand. The Dextrus is designed to be as close to the human hand, in terms of movement, as possible: “Each finger is actuated by a single tendon that runs through all of the joints to the tip. This means it will grasp just like a human hand, adapting to fit any form that’s placed in it.”

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Dextrus: Chef and amputee Liam Corbett models Joel’s prosthesis

He then started up Open Bionics with the same aim as the Open Hand Project and, in part, as a means to continue to fund the development of his robotic prosthesis. At Open Bionics, “there are lots of other cool things happening… like creating miniature robotic hands for humanoid robots and experimenting with the latest developments in 3D printing.” Ultimately these will be tools available not only to those with missing limbs but also to hobbyists, makers and robotics enthusiasts.

As well as his huge success with crowd funding for the Open Hand Project, Joel has also presented a TED talk about his work which you can view below.

He has also won the prestigious Intuit small business competition beating 1000 other entrants to win the grand prize of £10,000.

A prosthesis that grows with you

A large part of Joel’s inspiration to create an affordable robotic prothesis was also to increase its accessibility for children. As children grow, their prosthetic hand can need replacing as often as once a year. With one of Joel’s protheses costing as little as $1000 (£600) and where the bulk of the parts can be replaced cheaply using a 3D printer, the problem of children outgrowing their prosthesis is greatly reduced.

As part of his crowd funding Joel also introduced the idea of ‘superhero’ prosthesis for children to reduce stigma and help children with lost limbs to feel more empowered. His initial idea was to create superhero hands, such as the ‘Iron Man’ prototype, pictured below. “I contacted Marvel and unfortunately they won’t let me use their superhero likenesses… that said, Guardians of the Galaxy was awesome, I’m not one to hold a grudge.”

“I know designers that do incredible work. The prosthetic that I’m just starting to develop now will be designed with children in mind from the start.”

 

Undeterred, Joel is continuing to work on a child-friendly design, “I know designers that do incredible work. The prosthetic that I’m just starting to develop now will be designed with children in mind from the start.”

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Joel’s hope is to continue development of his robotic hands over the next year, working to sell them for $1,000 each: “I’m aiming for a release date of June 2015, but this is dependent on funding. If I can win some more money or make some money through Open Bionics, I’ll be able to hire more developers and get the product to market on time. If I can’t do that, it may take longer to finish development.

“When it happens, my greatest success will be the first time I get one of my prosthetic hands working on the forearm of an amputee.”

“When it happens, my greatest success will be the first time I get one of my prosthetic hands working on the forearm of an amputee.”

 

We asked Joel what he wished he’d known when he was starting out: “When I was setting up the Open Hand Project I wish I had known more about the opportunities that are available to entrepreneurs in the UK in terms of funding, development and assistance.”

He also offers this advice for anyone looking to follow in his footsteps: “I studied robotics at university. I got involved with it initially as a natural evolution from playing with Lego and Meccano as a child. If someone wants to get involved with something they’re interested in, the best way to do that is just to start doing it. Follow tutorials, start making things, engage with communities. The more you do that, the better you’ll become and eventually you’ll get lucky like me and find yourself doing what you love for a living!”

You can follow Open Bionics on Twitter at @openbionics. They’re always looking for feedback on their products and ideas so if anyone is interested in what they do then just email [email protected].