“Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. …Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.”
Many who are old enough to have lived through the 70s will be familiar with this quote from the American science fiction TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man. Though the idea of cybernetic replacement is often still considered fanciful by large swaths of the American populace, nothing could be further from the truth. Extremely versatile mechanical prosthetic devices have been available for many years, the principal problem with them was the price tag, as the average market price for sophisticated mechanical limb replacements often settles somewhere north of $40,000; not exactly what any sane person would describe as “affordable,” especially for children who will require continual unit replacements as they grow. What then is the solution? 3D printing and a good deal of dedicated mechanical engineers.
A fascinating 501(c)(3) non-profit, Orlando-based tech-company called Limbitless Solutions, founded in 2014, was able to cut the cost of creating fully functional prosthetic limbs, from around $40,000 to just under $400 dollars, that is approximately 1% of a traditional mechanical limb replacement unit. The company was able to reduce the cost via 3D printing; the process is also incredibly fast, with fully functional bionic arm production requiring between 8-12 weeks. Such a price reduction, coupled with the ease and speed of their creation, means that Limbitless’ robotic limbs are able to be disseminated to those who would otherwise just have to wait for extraordinarily long periods of time; this is a terrific boon to those unfortunate children who are born without limbs and, it should be noted, there are many more than one might assume.
Congenital upper limb reduction occurs in approximately 1500 (4 out of 10,000) babies in the US each year, whilst 750 (2 out of 10,000) are born missing some portion of their lower limbs.
Whilst the motor problems inherent in being born with some portion of one’s limbs missing is obvious, the emotional problems which they cause are less clear. It is impossible for most to understand what it is like to have never been able to embrace one’s fellows, to never be able to hug with both arms and hands and then suddenly, to be alleviated of such a malady.
Limbitless solutions was the brainchild of University of Central Florida (UCF) engineering student and phD candidate, Albert Manero who now operates as the company’s president. Manero wanted to provide more than just bionics to children, he also wanted to help them incorporate the technology into their lives; he found that often, what kids with congenital limb-loss most desire is, surprisingly, not to be able to pick things up again, but rather to have confidence in social settings. He found that children would often asked kid’s with missing limbs what happened to them; sometimes they would be teased, or worse, bullied for their malformity, derided as freaks. Therefore, Manero incorporated a dedicated team of artists into his project such that prospective recipients will be able to fully customize their bionic limbs to better express their identity in much the same way that one would add tassels to a bike or paint it this or that color. This fusion of art and technological innovation put Limbitless Solutions on the map when they arranged, with Microsoft, a meeting between a young boy named Alex, who was born with a partially unformed right arm, and Robert Downey, Jr., a American actor best known for portraying the popular superhero, Iron Man.
Yet, bionic arms are not the only type of product which Mr. Manero and his compatriots are designing, as they also have created something called Project Xavier (named after the X-Men character, Charles Xavier); a wheelchair which can be moved about solely by the electronic impulses generated by the muscles in one’s head. EMG sensors in a Project Xavier wheelchair detect energy generated via one’s jaw muscles which then allow the chair to be controlled merely by clenching and unclenching one’s jaws; this is then a extremely promising vehicle for those who were unfortunate enough to have been born without the use of their hands or those who have lost the use of their arms later on in life.
What is further promising about this venture is that since Limbitless is a 501(C)(3) it cannot be bought-out by some other opportunistic tech company that wished to utilizes it as a catalyst for emerging bionics market domination, as there is no profit being made and no technical ownership to be transferred. Though the board could still be taken over by those who affix themselves to the organization, this is a weakness which is true of any organization. What Limbitless prefigures is a future wherein mechanical limbs are as common as paperclips, where anyone and everyone who has a 3D printer will be able to create bionic prosthetics from their homes and places of residence. Naturally, that is unlikely for the present due to the concentration of technological sophistication and the scarcity of materials required for the additive manufacturing process, but Limbitless’ work serves as an inspirational model for the judicious application of computer generative manufacturing and artistic personalization; of what use, after all, is the art which does not seek to make life imitate it?
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