For children with limb absences and discrepancies, prosthetic arms can be extremely expensive, tricky to use, and, like kids’ clothes or shoes, quickly outgrown, which means that parents have to spend a lot of cash for an important device that won’t last very long. But a research lab in Orlando is providing a creative—and cheaper—alternative, by 3D-printing fully functional and free bionic arms. And they’re tailor-designed to look not like a medical device, but to perfectly suit little fans of Iron Man or Blue Man Group.
There are likely more than 30,000 children under the age of 16 in the U.S. with “limb difference,” the full or partial absence of a limb. Five in 10,000 children are born with limb difference, due to a gestational defect called amniotic band syndrome; others lose limbs to amputations after accidents, commonly with lawn mowers or fireworks, says Albert Manero, president, CEO and cofounder of Limbitless Solutions.
Limbitless is a research lab, attached to the University of Central Florida, which has partnered with Oregon Health and Science University for this nationwide project. The project is in its clinical trial phase, under which it has now provided arms to 40 children aged 6 to 17.
Families can apply for bionic arms; once selected, initial designs are created by the Limbitless team using Adobe and Autodesk software. Children can then help personalize the designs online, tweaking the theming and picking out colors. The arms are 3D-printed using Stratasys machines, then primed, sanded, painted and assembled, all of which takes about a week, before fitting takes place on the Florida or Oregon campuses. Each arm has at least two interchangeable designs, Manero says, so a kid can be a princess in the morning and a superhero at night.
They’re not designed to look human, but are rather to allow a child to express him or herself. Limbitless has partnered with the video game Halo, so kids can be heroes or villains from that story. In 2015, Robert Downey Jr. delivered an Iron Man arm to a 7-year-old boy. Other children have opted for cheerleader, Hawaiian floral, and Blue Man Group themes.
The arms are called “bionic” for a reason: They’re also fully functional. They use electromyographic technology, which uses a bicep or forearm contraction to produce an electrical voltage, detected by sensors in the arm, which then generates specific hand or arm movements. The lab has also developed a video game that digitally connects to the arm for children to practice movements—so they can ultimately perform day-to-day tasks, such as getting dressed and buckling seatbelts, with ease.
Cosmetically realistic prosthetics may cost $20,000 to $30,000, and are useless once kids grow. Limbitless arms are adaptive as bodies become bigger. And Limbitless provides the arms for free, using funding from philanthropic and corporate sources, including Adobe, which this week granted $100,000 to the facility. (The lab also uses Adobe and Autodesk software for free.) Manero says that grant will help them move to a bigger facility, and to start working with adults who’ve lost limbs, particularly vets and first responders.
If they go on to receive their FDA clearance once clinical trials have ended, they’ll be able to distribute arms to hospitals and other clinics. But a priority, Manero says, is to work with insurance companies to ensure that there will be “no financial burdens for families in receiving one of these arms.”