IMPACT JOURNALISM DAY 2015

3D printed prosthetic hands point way to future

Mr Nicolas Huchet with his BionicoHand, a robotic prosthetic hand that can be made cheaply using tools like 3D printers.
Mr Nicolas Huchet with his BionicoHand, a robotic prosthetic hand that can be made cheaply using tools like 3D printers. PHOTO: FRANÇOIS TANCRÉ

This story was first published on June 20, 2015

At 31, Mr Nicolas Huchet may still have the laid-back look of a teenager but that is not to say he should not be taken seriously.

The young sound engineer is among 10 "innovators under 35" recently honoured by the prestigious US research centre MIT, which named him French "social innovator" for 2015.

He is the man behind the BionicoHand, a robotic prosthetic hand that can be made cheaply using widely available tools - like 3D printers - and is based on designs that will be made freely available online.

Mr Huchet lost his right hand in a work accident when he was 18. "As soon as I saw the prosthesis offered by the French national health service, I knew I would never like it, even though it did allow me to do quite a few things," he said.

It was 10 more years before he started the project that has completely changed his life. It was a visit to the Rennes "fab lab" - a production workshop that is open to the public - that kick- started the project.

"I was walking past a 3D printer and it got me wondering whether it would be possible to make a robotic hand that I had already found open source designs for."

With the help of some 20 fab lab volunteers who offered their expertise in fields such as electronics, coding and prosthetics, an initial prototype was put together in five months at a cost of €300 (S$454).

Sensors placed in the forearm convert the energy created by tensing muscles into electric signals that tell the fingers to move.

The BionicoHand was born.

Said Mr Huchet: "The prototype isn't quite developed enough for (daily) use - there's still some work to be done."

The "My Human Kit" foundation was set up to support the project which is estimated to require annual funding of between €160,000 and €200,000.

The final version of the BionicoHand will cost between €1,000 and €1,500, compared to €11,000 on average for entry-level models on the market.

Said Mr Huchet: "Normally, making robotic prostheses is a high-tech process, but with us it's all about 'low tech'."

PAULINE FRÉOUR/LE FIGARO (FRANCE)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2016, with the headline '3D printed prosthetic hands point way to future BE MY HAND'. Print Edition | Subscribe