Engineering Low-Cost Prosthetics for Kids

A young mechanical engineering student stumbled into the burning need for prosthetics for kids that pushed him into the field of bionics. He started a student-based volunteer group at the University of Central Florida and the team build an “Iron Man” themed arm for a 7-year-old boy, who was born with a partially developed limb. After eight months of development and redesign, the kid received his new arm from the Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr., himself. Limbitless Solutions is now a non-profit organization that builds affordable, bionic, 3D-printed arms for children. For Dr. Albert Manero, President, Limbitless Solutions, combining academic skills with an entrepreneurial spirit to advance the field of bionics, has been a unique experience.

From the technical perspective, tell us what you mean by bionics? Are these prosthetics truly bionic or is it more of a hybrid?
Manero: We work with electromyographical bionic limbs. That means being able to read the muscle voltage signal, capture the intentionality, and tell it to open and close the hand. The current model only does a binary open and close but we are now working on the version that will give full hand dexterity. That’s how kids are able to use their arms naturally. It provides a binary grasp to the kids about the same strength you would expect a young child to have. We are looking to augment the ways to give them tools to be able to go after anything they need day to day.

How have the innovations in additive manufacturing enabled you to build your products?
Manero: The use of additive manufacturing incredibly speeds up the time of prototyping. Being able to create complex features, things that would be expensive or prohibitive using traditional manufacturing– I think that’s where additive really succeeds. In the case of a bionic arm, it is supposed to look organic and have different moving designs, being able to capture that in an artistic nature really lends itself to use 3D printing. We couldn’t have done this without 3D printing as we didn’t have the budget when we started and we needed to rapidly iterate with the complexity. Being able to use additive allowed us to have the right blend, the right tools, and right material that can really bring the entire device to life.

So one of the most high-profile project your company worked on was the “Iron Man” project. Can you tell us more about that?
Manero: It was an incredible opportunity and we are thankful Rober Downy Jr. was able to participate and make this little boy’s dream come true. We took our traditional design and were able to theme it just like the movie. Microsoft had reached out to us for its Collective Project, which is a group of stories about student-led impact around the country. Robert was very receptive and it took the story to whole another level. We are trying to use all that enthusiasm and take it forward by making bionic arms free for families and transform that to something that can really scale. When we started we were just trying to help this local family but when the story started releasing we started receiving email from around the US and the world of people and asking for help. That pushed us to launch our non-profit as we wanted to be able to give the kids bionic arms for free and we had to find a way to do that. 

What advice would you give to mechanical engineers interested in starting their own business?
Manero: It’s important to take what you do in engineering and apply it. In terms of entrepreneurship you are taking the same principles and rigor and putting it behind developing out a business in the same sense. It has been challenging for us in our youth, so having great advisors and mentors can make the difference between having a great idea and making it grow and scale.  

Dr. Albert Manero is the keynote speaker at this year’s E-Fest East.