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According to the National Health Service (NHS), about 6,000 major limb amputations are carried out in the UK each year. Functional prosthetics can help, but they tend to be costly, and are sometimes only plastic-molded limbs with hooks, which isn’t much help when you’re trying to grip something and pick it up. But advanced technology, such as 3D printing and robotics, can be used to make fully-functioning prosthetics at a more affordable cost, which is what students at the University of Manchester have been working on.

For his final year Mechanical Engineering Master’s project, student Alex Agboola-Dobson and his team – which consists of lead electrical engineer Sebastian Preston-Jensen, lead software engineer Panagiotis Papathanasiou, and mechanical and software engineers Maximillian Rimmer and Shao Hian Liew – developed, designed, and built an affordable, 3D printed robotic prosthetic hand.

Not only does the hand feature joints that can be fully posed, but it is also a much less expensive alternative for amputees in need of a helping hand.

“Not only do we want to make it affordable, we want people to actually like the look of it and not be ashamed or embarrassed of using or wearing it,” explained Agboola-Dobson. “Some traditional prosthetics can both look and feel cumbersome or, those that don’t, are extremely expensive. We think our design really can make a difference and we will be looking to commercialise the project in the future.”

The fingers and thumb of the robotic hand, 3D printed in a high-quality plastic resin using SLA technology, can each move independently of the others, and can also come together to make a fist, to offer users full functionality. The 3D printed robotic prosthetic helps amputees complete ordinary, everyday tasks, like picking up important items such as the phone or a cup of coffee, opening doors and eating with utensils, and clicking a mouse or typing on a keyboard. It can even be used to win a game of rock-paper-scissors (lizard-Spock, for fans of The Big Bang Theory).

The student team took their prosthetic to the recent Industry 4.0 Summit and Factories of the Future Expo at Manchester Central, where it won big as the Best New Development in the Digital Innovation Challenge.

“We are really delighted for them, it was a great experience for them to pitch their idea in front of a panel of experts and the prize money will help them develop the idea further. This will be a great addition to their CV,” said Dr. Carl Diver from the university’s School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering (MACE). “We are very excited to see what the future holds for this group and their innovative creation.”

The team was inspired to create a 3D printed robotic prosthetic hand with a more lifelike, but still futuristic, design, because so many prosthetic limbs available through the NHS that aren’t robotic are only for cosmetic purposes.

But the design of the student team’s 3D printed prototype prosthetic isn’t the only thing that makes it stand out. The students managed to build the hand for only £307, and believe they can make it for even less money in the future. Most advanced robotic prosthetic limbs in the UK start at a cost of about £25,000, which can go all the way up to £60,000 if purchased privately. Even the robotic hands with only the most basic multi-grip functionality that are considered affordable still start at around £3,000.

Another important advantage of the students’ design is connectivity – the 3D printed robotic prosthetic comes with an Android app for a smartphone and a Bluetooth connection. Muscle sensors that are placed on the user’s arm can be paired to the team-designed app, in order to control the hand.

“The functionality is customised through the phone app, but the muscle sensors provide the control by moving the hand whenever necessary. It is really simple to use,” Agboola-Dobson said.

The team hopes to eventually move to using FFF 3D printing technology, rather than SLA, to fabricate the robotic hand to lower costs as they look to maintain high quality standards.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts in the Facebook comments below.

[Source: University of Manchester]

 

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