Handsmith: Bionic Hands Made Accessible Thanks to One Man’s Vision — and 3D Printing


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“This maker revolution is cool — but what are you making?”

handsmithLyman Connor isn’t afraid to ask the questions others may tiptoe around. The GE software engineer went right to the meat of the matter when I met with him last week at Formlabs’ booth at CES 2017 on the first full day of the show. He introduced me to a man who was seeking a replacement for his own bionic hand, one of the non-3D printed variety, which cost upwards of $65,000 — this is the competition Connor is striving to displace through his Handsmith initiative with the Mano-matic bionic hand.

Handsmith, a nonprofit based in Roanoke, Virginia, is competing with traditional bionic hands that cost from $45K to $75K, and which are not distributed to just anyone who wants one, even if their insurance might theoretically cover it. Connor told me about some of the stipulations in place for the current system, in which an amputee might not qualify for a functional bionic prosthetic hand due to a somewhat sedentary lifestyle or advanced age (“advanced” meaning as young as about 50 years old, hardly out of society’s eye), and have to accept that they can only afford a hook prosthetic. He paused here, and motioned with his own pair of fully functional hands: “You might ask how I became invested in this, when I have both my hands.”


Lyman Connor at the Formlabs booth, CES 2017

In 2013, Connor was hospitalized following a nasty bicycle accident, and it was there that he happened to meet a young boy who had been born without one of his hands, and whose family didn’t have $50,000 to get him a functional bionic prosthetic. Thus began an odyssey, as Connor found a new mission in life. He set out to find out where the costs came from — and noted that a lot of that value proposition comes from stigma. The next questions on his list were to discover who the leader was, who was making these hands. He founded Handsmith to offer the Mano-matic as an alternative to these high-priced, often-inaccessible prosthetics, and was in a unique position to do so thanks to his background. Connor has worked for 17 years at GE writing software, and now after his work at his day job is completed, he turns his impressive amount of energy to Handsmith, putting to work GE’s FastWorks methodology that emphasizes a “build, measure, learn” philosophy.

20170105_153037Connor first turned to 3D printing as a solution for prototyping the hands, and started with FDM technology. This, he quickly realized, “was not good enough” for what he had in mind; there would always be striation, it would never be quite what he wanted it to be. He turned next to SLA technologies, starting with outsourcing to service bureaus — but the costs added up quickly. As a test, he sent the same STL file to a service bureau using a $250K 3D printer and to Formlabs; once he had both completed prints in hand, he couldn’t discern a difference between the models.

“I took a leap of faith then,” Connor told me. “I purchased four Form 2 3D printers and created my own microfactory in Roanoke.”

Using these 3D printers, Connor is finding that there’s “a lot of room in the medical industry for personal, one-off creations — and that’s going to blow that market wide open.” The 3D printers further proved their use beyond prototyping, and finished hands come right off the machines. The key here is that he can get right to the voice of the customer, a luxury OEMs don’t have, or just a step they aren’t taking, and can create personalized prostheses. While there have been hesitations from those concerned about the hands a single man is making on a 3D printer, Connor isn’t exactly an amateur, and while right now he’s single-handedly (pun actually not intended) doing all of the designing, programming, and validation, he has a supportive team in place with Handsmith, and has gone through the steps to ensure that the Mano-matic hands created offer performance comparable to or superior than the hands already out there; Handsmith’s 3D printed bionic hands are approved by Medicare and Medicaid, and Connor has also spoken to insurers, including at CES where he talked with United Healthcare.

handsmith-ces1A 3D printed bionic hand from Handsmith will run about $8,500 — a significant savings from the $50K+ out there now, but still out of reach for some; if a user can’t afford that price, the nonprofit runs a pay-what-you-can scheme to ensure that those who need one can get a hand. Connor said that several people had pointed out that last year 1,000 people received bionic hands globally, and that that’s not necessarily a very large number indicative of a large market; however, those thousand individuals were those able to afford them, so that’s a number Connor is very invested in seeing rise. For 2017, Connor has set a goal for Handsmith to deliver 30 hands. He is also working toward an eventual goal of creating a full-arm prosthesis, and in about four months is expecting to have an elbow completed.

20170105_152903The creation of one bionic hand can be done in a single day, as all parts can be 3D printed in one build in nine hours; assembly then takes about six hours. Handsmith fitted its first hand on 3 December, replacing a traditional ($90K) bionic hand that user Sean O’Connor had worn for only a few months before becoming embarrassed by its articulating at leisure and regular malfunctioning. The key to the Handsmith vision is creating a prosthetic that will create more than a good feeling — Connor wants to ensure that the hands will actually be worn and useful in daily life.

“That’s what differentiates us from e-NABLE, Limbitless,” Connor said. “Those are feel-good stories, but the prosthetics fail often. They make great pictures but people take them off and never put them back on again. They sit on a shelf.”

Because the magic of a bionic hand is in its articulating technology, the 3D printed casing is largely cosmetic, and so Connor notes that Handsmith will not charge a person for a second hand should they outgrow their original prosthetic. Below is a video of Connor demonstrating the functionality of a bionic hand at CES:

Not content even with a full-time job and the massive undertaking of Handsmith, Connor is hard at work ensuring that digital fabrication continues to spread. This summer, he will be teaming up with Dassault Systèmes and Formlabs to present a series of three summer camps focusing on SOLIDWORKS. The first two of these camps will be dedicated to girls, a segment of growing focus for STEAM-based learning as more initiatives seek to engage girls in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics curricula.

After all, as Connor notes of the maker revolution, “making” isn’t just downloading a Thingiverse file and sending it to a plug-and-play printer — the spirit of the maker is encompassed in what one actually makes. And in Lyman Connor’s case, what he’s making is a real difference.

You can read more about Handsmith here as well as in a Formlabs case study and from GE Reports — and you can donate here to the cause. Every bit helps, as Connor has already emptied out his own 401(K) savings to support this initiative and welcomes additional financial support.

Discuss in the Handsmith forum at 3DPB.com.

[All photos/video taken by Sarah Goehrke at CES 2017 for 3DPrint.com]

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