A prototype 3D-printed robotic hand that can be made faster and more cheaply than current alternatives is this year’s UK winner of the James Dyson Award.
The Bristol-raised creator of the Open Bionics project says he can 3D-scan an amputee and build them a custom-fitted socket and hand in less than two days.
It typically takes weeks or months to obtain existing products.
Joel Gibbard says he aims to start selling the prosthetics next year.
“We have a device at the lower-end of the pricing scale and the upper end of functionality,” he told the BBC.
“At the same time it is very lightweight and it can be customised for each person.
“The hand is basically a skeleton with a ‘skin’ on top. So, we can do different things to the skin – we can put patterns on it, we can change the styling and design. There’s quite a lot of flexibility there.”
The 25-year-old inventor intends to charge customers £2,000 for the device, including the cost of a fitting.
Although prosthetic arms fitted with hooks typically can be bought for similar prices, ones with controllable fingers are usually sold for between £20,000 and £60,000.
That cost can sometimes be prohibitive for children, who usually need to change their prosthetic once or twice a year to take account of their growth.
Open Bionics’ hand relies on myoelectric signals, meaning it detects muscle movements via sensors stuck to the owner’s skin and uses them to control its grip.
A single flex of the wearer’s muscles opens and closes the fingers, while a double flex changes the shape to form a pinch grip.
Although the user cannot feel what the fingers are touching, sensors built into the digits can tell when they come into contact with an object to limit the pressure they exert.
This means owners can pick up objects as fragile as an egg without crushing them.
However, Mr Gibbard acknowledges there are still some limitations to his design.
“We’re using lower-cost motors than they have in high-end devices, so the overall strength is lower,” he said.
“So, we are testing it with users and household objects and trying to come to a compromise that means it is very affordable and still has enough power to do most of the stuff that people want.”