Technological advances in recent years have significantly improved the functionality of prosthetic arms and legs – as anyone who has witnessed the achievements of Paralympic athletes over the last few years can testify. But this all comes at a cost, both in time and money.
Advanced prostheses with powered dexterity are expensive and take months to design and build to fit the individual wearer. This is followed by months of specialist rehabilitation for the amputee to learn to operate the device. Each prosthetic limb has a finite lifespan, usually up to around five years before needing to be replaced. In the meantime, they have to be serviced and wearers often have to rely on a spare. If the amputee wants to take part in sporting and outdoor pastimes, they may also need a separate, suitably-adapted prosthetic.
Unsurprisingly, the costs over a lifetime can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds and make them unaffordable to most amputees but Joel Gibbard, the 2015 UK winner of the James Dyson Award, has developed a cheap way of delivering powered prosthetics.
Gibbard has harnessed 3D-printing technology to create prosthetic limbs. His system can scan an amputee and then design and create a bespoke prosthetic hand and socket in less than two days. The prosthetic is made of lightweight flexible plastic and is expected to be available in the next year. Costing around £2,000, it will deliver finger-control and is a huge improvement on the current crude devices in this price bracket which are typically a prosthetic arm with a hook.
The low cost of the new device is achieved through the design and build phases and by using lower cost motors. Although this will sacrifice some power compared to more expensive alternatives, it should deliver most of the functionality that wearers need day-to-day. Initially, the technology is limited to below-elbow prosthetics but there are plans to offer other prostheses in the future.
Andrew Clayton of the Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team welcomes the news: "Joel Gibbard is a deserving winner of this award and his innovation will make an enormous contribution, opening up functionally useful prosthetics to many who cannot afford those currently on offer.
"We advise many clients who have suffered amputation as a result of negligence in their medical care or following a traumatic accident. We know that the costs of prosthetics put the latest technology beyond the financial reach of most amputees and are often the reason why clients come to us for legal advice.
“Delivering high functioning prosthetics at an affordable price will be life-changing for many. We wish Joel and his company success in the international stages of the Dyson Award."