Michael Molitch-Hou from 3D Printing Industry

3D-printing3D printing has already ushered in a new era of low-cost prosthetics. In addition to yielding custom limbs that are orders of magnitude less expensive than their traditionally manufactured counterparts, 3D printing is giving prostheses wearers the ability to express their identities like never before (see yesterday’s post on Alex Pring’s Iron Man-themed arm).  If there’s one person who knows how to turn their limb into a canvas, it’s YouTube star and actor Grace Mandeville, who has previously sported a feather and bead-adorned claw made via Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s Alternative Limb project.  And, if there’s one group that knows 3D printed prosthetics, it’s UK-based Open Bionics,which recently crafted a Swarovski-studded hand for Mandeville for the Wearable Tech Show 2015, held in London this week.

As well as starring in the CBBC’s The Sparticle Mystery, Grace and her sister Amelia run a popular blog and YouTube channel.  Born with a foreshortened right arm, Grace isn’t bashful about wearing prosthetics or foregoing them altogether.  So, when Open Bionics, a four-person start-up out of the Bristol Robotic’s Laboratory’s Technology Incubator, created a custom prosthetic for the actor, she was excited.

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Mandeville says, “This is my favourite thing about this whole topic. I really love fashion, and therefore dress to illustrate my personality, so being able to wear a creative prosthetic that shows who I am seems awesome- it’s like a one-off accessory that nobody else can wear, basically like vintage Chanel.” She adds, “You should be proud of what makes you different, and I think being able to wear a fun-looking prosthetic is something to be proud of! You’re basically saying to the public ‘my arm’s cool and I know’.”

Open Bionics has created custom bionic limbs in the past, but the company’s COO, Samantha Payne, says that they wanted to demonstrate the extent of what’s possible when 3D printing a prosthesis, both from an aesthetic and technological standpoint.  Payne explains, “We printed Grace a socket and robotic hand in three days and because 3D printing is so affordable we can add Swarovksi crystals and create something really eye-catching that will not break the bank. We also added four fibre optic wires to the socket so that, whenever Grace closes her hand, a blue light would shoot up her 3D printed arm.”

3D printed Swarovski

She continues, “Prosthetics are entering the realm of fashion and we wanted to show how bionic prosthetics can be functional and fun. We’ve been very experimental with Grace’s hand. This is a completely new socket design and this is the first time we’ve experimented with placing the EMG sensors above the elbow. Grace is actually controlling her hand by the muscle signals from her back.”

A question that has occurred to me when seeing these bionic limbs in action is just how hard they might be to use.  Grace suggests that it’s not all that difficult to trigger the hand, “I found the hand really easy to operate, I tried it on for the first time Monday and I could control the hand straight away. I thought it was going to be really heavy but it wasn’t. I obviously still feel the difference, I was born with a foreshorten forearm so wearing anything is going to feel different and will always be an added weight.”

At the same time, the unique look of the prosthetic flips the social norms directed towards those who wear them.  Payne elaborates, “The idea is to give hand amputees more options and a choice to have something they’d get some enjoyment out of wearing. We’ve been told a lot by amputees that they want something that will get a compliment not a strange stare, something far away from a ‘flesh’ coloured prosthetic.”

Amelia sees her sister’s limb as turning a “negative into a positive”, with Grace explaining that the limb is really an opportunity to create a work of art.  She says, “Who wants to be the same? Why try to blend in? When you can have a piece of art as an arm instead? I feel like a warrior with it, I feel proud to wear a prosthetic.”  In fact, though Grace was given a traditional prosthetic when she was young and still has one today, she says, “I never wear it; I don’t like wearing it; it gets in the way.”

Printing in 3D

The bionic hand, on the other hand, has become a sort of fashion piece. Grace says, “I love what Open Bionics is doing. So many people thought I had a hand and I was wearing a fashionable sleeve and making a fashion statement. I had to keep pulling my arm out and showing people that I wasn’t wearing some kind of glove but an actual bionic arm.” She concludes, “I don’t ever wear prosthetics because I don’t feel like I need to. I would however absolutely love a bionic hand like this for events and evening’s out. I love fashion and this looks incredible.”

Though certainly Open Bionics’ flashiest prosthetic to date, it will definitely not be its last.  The Bristol start-up is continuing to develop their bionic limbs, including a scalable hand for children that they’ll be testing in the next few weeks.  Then, within a year, the company plans to begin selling their 3D printed prosthetics to the masses.