April 02, 2015      

It’s all in the mission

Open Bionics, the newest, smallest and youngest of our RBR50 companies for 2015, resides in a small laboratory in Bristol, England. The company makes a single product: a 3D printed prosthetic hand that the company boasts is the most functional and most cost-effective prosthesis of its kind worldwide.

The company?s website claims ?There are an estimated 11.4 million hand amputees worldwide.? The worldwide market for prosthetics, which includes the design, manufacturing and fitting of artificial limbs that typically cost $10,000 to $65,000, is projected to grow to $23.5 billion by 2017, according to data from Global Industry Analysts. The global prosthetic limbs segment of that market is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6 percent through 2017, reaching in excess of $4.5 billion.

In short, there is a massive global market need for prosthetic limbs, but are most of those who need a limb able to afford one? The answer is a resounding no. Could there arise an even larger market than the one forecast for 2017 ($4.5 billion) if functional, light-weight, inexpensive limbs were plentiful? Open Bionics is pioneering just such a limb?a 3D-printed hand?for just such a market.

In the U.S. alone, the numbers of amputees show a large marketplace for prosthetic hands, 3D printed or otherwise:

  • 41,000 persons in U.S.registered with an amputation of hand or arm
  • Only half upper extremity amputees ever receive prosthetic services
  • Manufacturers of terminal devices for prostheses report 10,000 units sold annually
  • 30 to 50 percent of amputees do not use prosthetic hand regularly

Many millions of worldwide amputees can only dream of owning any sort of cosmetic replacement, even those prostheses of limited functionality.

We asked our European editor Andrew Williams to pay a visit to the company?s founder Joel Gibbard. Andrew came back with this look-see into Open Bionics and its mission.

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Harnessing 3D printing for robotic prostheses

UK startup Open Bionics is harnessing a range of innovative 3D scanning, modelling and printing techniques to ‘dramatically’ cut the cost of fitting hand amputees with 3D printed robotic hand prosthetics.

The Bristol Robotics Laboratory-based company takes a 3D scan of an amputees’ residual limb, before creating a 3D model hand for them, based on the amputees other hand (if they have one) or their proportions. Within five days, it then 3D prints a custom-fitted hand with several grip patterns that are controlled by an amputees’ muscle signals using Electromyographical (EMG) sensors.

According to Joel Gibbard, founder of Open Bionics, the company is still in the R&D stages, but has already fitted two people born without hands and is currently working on fitting a young girl who lost all her limbs to meningitis.

“The longest someone has worn one of our hands is around five consecutive days. It was a great feeling to see someone benefit from the technology, they really seemed to enjoy wearing the hand and it was printed in their favorite color,” he adds.

Open Hand

The business was established as a direct result of The Open Hand Project, a crowdfunding campaign run by Gibbard to help finance the development of affordable robotic prosthetic hands using 3D printing.

The initial idea was that the company would create 3D printed robotic hands and release all developments open source, allowing others to take the developments and start creating affordable 3D robotic hands for amputees.

“That has happened and people are working on the files I released, but I wanted to continue developing because I thought I could do better, so I founded Open Bionics,” says Gibbard.

Looking ahead, the company is particularly keen to harness the creativity of children, and has been asked to create a robotic ‘Power Ranger’ style prosthetic. Gibbard reveals several parents have told him of the difficulties children face when they begin to notice their limb difference and become self-aware, and thinks it would be ‘amazing’ if the company could help to encourage young amputees to show off their limb differences ‘by helping children to see their prosthetic as a positive add-on.’

“Imagine how amazing it would be to walk into school one day with a robotic hand that lights up and looks like your favorite superhero’s? You can have real fun with it, and because 3D printing is so inexpensive you can upgrade the look of your hand as your style and tastes change,” he says.

“We found that having a light-weight prosthetic trumped having an advanced robotic hand. Amputees were far more concerned with the weight and the look of the hand than they were with the amount of dexterity it had.

“After discovering this I changed the focus from fine, precise finger movements to aesthetic and weight saving design. I’m now more focused on treating the robotic hands as interchangeable tools and even fashion accessories.”


By using 3D scanning and 3D printing, Gibbard says Open Bionics can ‘dramatically cut the time it takes for an amputee to receive a prosthetic.’ Because 3D printing is a relatively cheap manufacturing method, he also points out that it can produce products that are ‘way more affordable,’ and is hoping to sell hands for ‘under $1500.’ The company’s work has been welcomed and supported by the amputee community – with Limbcare and the Limbless Association both coming out in support of the new technology.

The company also hopes to make its robotic prosthetic hands available in the market in a year, with one goal being to drive the price of robotic prosthetics down low enough so it can ‘start bringing the technology to the developing world.’

According to Limb Prosthetics Services and Devices: Critical Unmet Need: Market Analysis, from the Bioengineering Institute Center for Neuroprosthetics (Worcester Polytechnic Institute):

“For patients without health insurance, a prosthetic arm typically costs less than $5,000 for a purely cosmetic arm, up to $10,000 for a functional prosthetic arm that ends in a split hook, and up to $20,000-$100,000 or more for an advanced myoelectric arm, controlled by muscle movements, with a functioning artificial hand.

“The cost of a prosthetic arm varies by the type of arm and the level of amputation. For example, a cosmetic arm and hand might cost $3,000-$5,000. A functional prosthetic arm with a “split hook” at the end might cost $10,000. A myoelectric prosthetic arm with a realistic-looking, functioning hand might cost $20,000- $30,000 or more.”

Awards & Honors

2nd place ($20,000) for Intel’s global ‘Make It Wearable’ competition 2014
British Engineering Excellence’s ‘Young Design Engineer of The Year Award’ 2014
Intuit’s ‘Britain’s Best Startup Idea’ competition 2014
TechSpark’s ‘Founder of the Year’ award 2014
Computer Bild’s ‘Best Product Innovation Award’ Consumer Electronics Show 2015
Short-listed for Semta’s ‘Engineering Hall of Fame’ award 2015