Week 11: 3D Printing

“Welcome to the future, where disabilities are superpowers,” reads OpenBionics‘ mission statement. This sounds like a line from a Utopian science-fiction movie (which would, inevitably, become a dystopian science fiction movie), or perhaps a quote from Professor Charles Xavier’s ‘School for the Gifted’. (Also now available as a science fiction movie / trilogy).

As it happens, Open Bionics themselves allude to making: “science fiction a reality,” (Open Bionics, [online resource], accessed May 2018).

Inspired to change the prosthetics industry, by the extortionate cost and relative inflexibility of essential replacement limbs, Samantha Payne founded Open Bionics (Sheppard, 2017). By using the modern medium of 3D Printing to create the limbs, OpenBionics can create a personalised ‘bionic’ hand for around one-sixth of the cost of those in the private sector, with the added USP of users being able to create them at home.

Lipson and Kurman highlight the availability of 3D Printing as a resource not just for those who may need its uniquely manufactured products, but even to those whose professional trades have not previously involved manufacturing (2012, pg.175). Samantha Payne and her business partner, before founding Open Bionics, worked in journalism and robotics engineering, respectively, prior to their award-winning enterprise (Sheppard, 2017).

Particularly with Joel Gibbard (said business partner, previously in robotics), they have been able to exploit the flexibility offered by 3D Printing to re-design an existing product, using new technology, and putting an affordable, essential solution into the health industry markets.

Lipson and Kurman state that: “patterns generated by algorithms, or equations, come in as many varieties as there are people,” (2012, pg.176). Highlighting the broad variety of shapes and patterns available to 3D Printing designers, who apply data and algorithms to their design, this is an ideal scenario for creating prosthetic limbs – which should ideally be custom fit for every user (Payne, in Sheppard, 2017):

“One of the most powerful applications of generative design is to apply computer algorithms to a particular problem to find the best, optimal solution. By crunching through rapid iterations and testing out possibly after possibility, a computer can generate design specs that when 3D printed, will create an object optimized to suit a particular person or environment.” (Lipson and Kuram, pg.181)

Strikingly, Open Bionics aim to keep all their product code open source, whereby anybody  in the interconnected world of Digital Cities can access and test the prosthetics (pending the availability of a 3D Printer at home). This allows for sharing, testing, and even feedback contributing to product development. Subsequently, this allows the company to keep their costs down, while their small team work collaboratively with people all over the world.

When also considering the environmental advantages of 3D Printing over traditional metal manufacturing techniques, it becomes clear that Open Bionics are doing incredible things in their industry. 3D Printing is already a ‘greener’ form of manufacturing, but with the addition of a significantly shorter supply chain – literally downloading the code, and printing the prosthetic – the carbon footprint left by the business, along with its cost to the consumer, is small (Lipson and Kuram, pg.203).

With the number of people worldwide requiring a limb set to double in the next 30 years (Oullier, 2018, [online resource] accessed may 2018), the cheaper and the greener the solution, the better for inhabitants of both today’s, and tomorrow’s Digital Cities.


Lipson, H., & Kurman, M., (2012). Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing. Wiley.

Open Bionics (website). [online resource], accessed May 2018. Available at: https://openbionics.com

Sheppard, E., (2017). The entrepreneur behind a revolutionary 3D-printed robotic hand. Guardian [online resource], accessed May 2018. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2017/may/03/the-award-winning-robotics-company-amputees-gender-equality-open-source-engineering

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