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Open Prosthetics Project September 23, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Bionics.

Scientific America has a fantastic article about a man who is revolutionizing the prosthetics design industry.  Jonathan Kuniholm, a marine reservist, lost his right arm in Iraq after his platoon was ambushed by insurgents.  Due to advances in medical technology surgeons were able to save his life but Kuniholm now suffered a fate shared by many soldiers, where wounds that in the past would have killed them now leave them maimed and disfigured.  Upon returning to the United States, Kuniholm was was fitted with two prosthesis.  The first was a standard split-hook device operated by a harness and cable system controlled by the shoulder and arm, and a more advanced myoelectric device which picks up nerve signals produced by muscle contraction to open and close the pincers of the hand. Both of these devices were on the cutting edge of prosthetic design, but Kuniholm wasn’t impressed.  In fact he was shocked by the lack of innovation in the prosthetics market.

In contrast to popular imagination and sci-fi movies, where prosthesis often grant Herculean strength and superhuman abilities, prosthetic devices in the real world are nowhere near as efficient as natural limbs and progress is very slow.  The reasons behind this stagnation are simple economics.  With the cost of prosthetics devices quite high (600 dollars for a basic hook and up to 6000 for a myoelectric hand) and the number of people needing them rather small there is little incentive for companies or individuals to invest the capital needed to improve the design.  So Kuniholm turned to a system that has been used in software design for years, open source.  With a few friends he started an online consortium called the Open Prosthetics Project, whose goal is to encourage innovation, to “Pimp my Arm” as it is known on the site, and then freely give the designs away.  Anyone can contribute to the website and all the designs are free to use.

With such a small market, open source may be the only credible way to bring new ideas and designs into the prosthetics market.  There is certainly no lack of minds willing to tackle this problem so giving them a place to share ideas is our best chance to take prosthetics forward.




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