Students develop 3D-printed robotic prosthesis

Students at the University of Queensland have created a 3D printed open-source prosthetic limb prototype, and intend to spark open-source knowledge around the creation of 3D-printed prosthetic limbs.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Students at the University of Queensland (UQ) have developed a 3D-printed open-source robotic prosthetic limb prototype.

The prototype took the UQ robotics club six months to develop. The club is now working to create a functioning prosthetic forearm, and hope to advance open-source knowledge around the creation of 3D-printed prosthetic limbs.

"We used files from an open-source humanoid robot arm, and now we're working on how to get it to interface with the human body," project manager and UQ business student Lex Van Cooten said.

Van Cooten said the arm uses sensors that are placed onto the muscles of the amputee. The sensors then pick up the electric pulse that the muscles give when they are tensed, which will then at a certain threshold trigger functionality within the arm.

"It uses electromyography -- a very basic signal process that responds to connections on the muscles, that essentially opens and closes the hand," he said. "The next step is being able to grip things, which is where most commercial units are at."

The club said the end goal for the project is to build a prosthetic arm that adds value to an amputee's life, their living experience, and something that is actually considered useful in their day to day activities.

"The only thing available to us is generally the aesthetic prosthetics that are just cosmetic, and they just hang there like a dead weight and are good for nothing," Ben Tarbuck, amputee consultant to the UQ robotics club said.

"You can also get a freaky-looking hook that looks like you belong in some sort of pirate movie, so having an arm that's functional, and also accessible financially for people would be a good move in the right direction, I reckon."

The UQ robotics club said it is working in collaboration with a number of amputees such as Tarbuck to test the equipment and get a perspective they otherwise would not have.

The club anticipates students will use what they learned to contribute to other open-source files on building prosthetics.

"We wanted to build something useful, to have fun but also add value. If we can bring something back to the open-source community and bring forward affordable limbs, that would be the ultimate goal," Van Cooten said.

According to the UQ robotics club, the 3D-printed limb costs around AU$500 to make, an expense currently funded through a university grant.

"It's a very active area; there are a lot of financial challenges for people seeking prosthetics. They can cost $10,000 per component and there's no room for customisation," Van Cooten said.

Last week, a 54-year-old Spanish man received a 3D-printed titanium sternum and rib implant that was designed and manufactured by Melbourne-based medical device company Anatomics, utilising Lab22, the 3D printing facility of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

The patient needed his sternum and a portion of his rib cage replaced due to a chest wall sarcoma, a type of tumour that grows in and around the rib cage. The CSIRO said the patient's surgical team knew the surgery would be difficult due to the complicated geometries involved in the chest cavity, and decided the customisable 3D-printed sternum and rib cage was the best option.

Through high resolution CT data, the Anatomics team said it created a 3D reconstruction of the chest wall and tumour, and manufactured the implant out of surgical grade titanium alloy.

"We built the implant using our AU$1.3 million Arcam printer," Alex Kingsbury from CSIRO's manufacturing team said. "The printer works by directing an electron beam at a bed of titanium powder in order to melt it. This process is then repeated, building the product up layer-by-layer until you have a complete implant.

"3D printing has significant advantages over traditional manufacturing methods, particularly for biomedical applications; as well as being customisable, it also allows for rapid prototyping, which can make a big difference if a patient is waiting for surgery."

Once the prosthesis was complete it was sent to Spain and implanted into the patient. According to the CSIRO, 12 days after the surgery the patient was discharged and has recovered well.

Australian Minister for Industry and Science Ian Macfarlane said this type of collaboration can transform the way industries operate and compete in international markets.

"This breakthrough is an impressive example of what can be achieved when industry and science come together," the minister said. "This collaboration crossed disciplines and international boundaries, with a clear benefit for both this individual patient and for surgical practice."

"Collaboration is the key to boosting Australia's innovation performance. Initiatives like our Industry Growth Centres will foster these links and relationships which are critical to future successes like this,"

Last week, MacFarlane's department in partnership with IP Australia released a toolkit for collaboration, intended for use by businesses, in particular small to medium enterprises (SMEs), public funded organisations, and individual researchers intending to undertake collaborative ventures.

The Australian IP Toolkit For Collaboration [PDF] outlines practices on how to increase the effectiveness of collaboration, strengthen relationships for ongoing collaboration, and tackle intellectual property.

"Businesses can benefit from collaboration through translating business needs, concepts, and ideas into fit-for-purpose products, processes, and services for improving market competitiveness and growth," the toolkit said. "They can also benefit from a raised company profile, and the potential for increased profit based on a competitive advantage."

With innovation in the country booming, Australian teclo giant Telstra opened an innovation lab last month in partnership with agile development and cloud-native platform, Pivotal.

The Gurrowa Innovation Lab provides a co-creation space for Telstra and its associated enterprise customers, vendors, research institutes, and incubators to collaborate on technological projects such as geolocation, robotics, and the Internet of Things via the Pivotal and Cloud Foundry Foundation-provided open-source platform-as-a-service cloud software.

"Technology is changing at a faster rate than ever before, impacting business models and traditional industry structures, and to stay ahead of the curve, we need to be constantly innovating," Telstra COO Kate McKenzie said at the time. "By partnering with Pivotal, we will enhance our innovation offering for our customers and create a pipeline of skills to grow our development capabilities."

Editorial standards