3D-printed arms fit for heroes 

In a major boost for affordable limb replacement, robotics-for-good venture Open Bionics this month releases the world’s first medically approved 3D-printed arm on to the UK market. And, following trials, the firm’s prosthetic hands could soon be available across the NHS.

Bristol-based Open Bionics uses 3D body scanning and printing technology to create affordable prosthetic limbs that are lightweight and designed specifically to help children adjust to limb loss and also feel more positive about their differences.

Its stigma-busting Hero Arm is available from April 25 for people aged just eight and above with below-elbow upper-limb differences. “Grab, pinch, high-five, fist bump, thumbs-up. Welcome to the future, where disabilities are superpowers,” Open Bionics tweeted last week.

The Hero Arm is a powered bionic hand controlled by muscle movement. Each arm is custom-built in a day, with the hand, socket and frame delivering “an all-in-one bespoke prosthesis that’s formed perfectly for you”. It is, says the firm, easily cleanable, with long battery life offering all-day usage without needing to plug in and charge.

Despite being bespoke, the 3D print process makes the arms much more affordable than competing products – with each one coming in at around £5000. That drive to affordability has led to a potentially game-changing partnership with the NHS, which overall spends £75m each year on prosthetic services. And, because young bodies grow, there’s an added cost to child prosthetics.

Clinical trials last year saw Open Bionics offer 3D-printed prosthetic hands to schoolchildren via the North Bristol NHS hospital trust. Following those trials, the hands could soon be available at NHS clinics across the country.

Samantha PayneOpen Bionics was cofounded in 2014 by Joel Gibberd and Samantha Payne (pictured), driven by a shared desire to remove the social stigma surrounding limb difference and change public perception of prosthetics. “We turn disabilities into superpowers,” says the company.

A 2015 stint on the LA-based Disney Accelerator made that spin reality, as the firm emerged from the programme offering Disney-superhero-themed bionic arms that would appeal to children. Hands themed by Marvel, Disney and Star Wars franchises are available.

Among other high-profile international wins for Open Bionics have been a $1m UAE Ai and robotics award in 2017 and $120,000 in cash support from Intel in 2015. The firm has had nearly $3m in backing to date.

Open Bionics also received early support from Nominet Trust through its social tech fund, enabling it to hire engineers and do its first feasibility study.

For-good founders open to big tech support