Prosthetics have come drastically far from the first prosthetic hand, Le Petit Lorrain, designed by French surgeon Ambroise Paré in the 16th Century. However, aesthetically, not that much has been changed. With 3D printing now becoming a useable and more affordable option, innovation and uniqueness are the new selling points of improved modern prostheses; designer prosthetics.
Why we need to upgrade to designer prosthetics
Prosthetics can change lives every single day. For those who need them, they are a lifeline which gives them immeasurable gifts of activity, freedom and independence. These bionic and artificial limbs envision the possibility of our transhuman futures, undaunted by biological weakness and enhanced by technological advancement as a step towards our seemingly unavoidable futures. However, the technology today is still unperfected and the expense is often unaffordable to those who need it most.
The NHS does provide free prosthetics to patients in the UK and spends approximately £60 million a year on these specialised and complex services. However, the number of patients with an amputation or congenital limb deficiency attending specialist rehabilitation service centres in the UK is estimated at 55,000 – 60,000, and due to yearly expenditure and costs, the prostheses provided are not always cosmetically attractive or the best option for each individual patient.
The prosthetics assigned to patients can be bulky, heavy and uncomfortable. Many patients complain about itchy and sore skin, problems with generally reduced stability, socket pain and the daunting mental repercussions of adjusting to artificial limbs. All of these examples are painful enough without also having to accommodate to the aesthetic impact of having to wear large, dull, clumsy, and unnatural looking limbs.
Children naturally tend to be ashamed of what it is that makes them different, hiding their prosthetics behind their backs in photographs and covering them with clothes, and this can continue in a vicious cycle towards adulthood. There are many foundations, individual designers and prosthetic surgeons working towards halting the shame behind having prostheses, but the aesthetic appeal is finally beginning to be truly considered. The modernisation of prosthetics into exceptional works of art is advancing constantly; working towards a much-needed end of self-expression and individual creativity available through the customisation of artificial limbs.
Some of the guys making designer limbs
The Hero Arm is one example of a high-end and fully functional bionic arm which is newly available on the market. The Hero Arm has been created by a Bristol-based start-up company called Openbionics who had the aim to create the first 3D printed bionic arm powered by muscle movements. The arm is lightweight, designed to mimic life-like intuitive actions, has multi-grip versatility and is battery powered to allow all-day usage. The Hero Arm has been highly praised for its empowering effects, particuarly with children, as the Openionics promotes the attitude that disabilities can be transformed into superpowers. The specialised arm allows for different sleeves to be fitted, which for children can include designs inspired by Iron Man, Frozen and Star Wars. There is a large range of other designs for adults so all arms are customisable and not just the same generic design for all recipients.
Openbionics aims to provide practicality and comfort in its design, making its consumers feel good about themselves. A step up from this, purely in terms of aesthetics, can be seen in the work done by the Alternative Limb Project. Founded by Sophie de Oliveira Barata, the Alternative LimbProject creates bespoke limbs using cutting edge technology and Oliviera Barata’s highly artistic background. The Project has so far created one of a kind pieces worn by singers, athletes, models and performers. One of her most famous designs, a crystal leg encrusted with Swarovski diamonds, was worn by Viktoria Modesta in a performance at the 2014 Paralympic games.
Oliviera Barata’s interest seems to lie in celebrating body diversity, to express the ability that our bodies can metamorphose into stylised expressions of our unique individuality as we are every day less restricted by our biology. As an aesthetic expression of this, the foundation’s designs are incredibly beautiful: mimicking snakes, nature, porcelain vases, and many more wonderful and unique designs.
Oliviera Barata’s foundation is clearly invested in creating high-end and high-fashion designs to reimagine the body, rather than just normalising a prosthetic limb, it is raised into transgression. There are other designers also invested in the advancement of artificial limbs beyond their ability to mimic biological limbs, such as the development of running blades which actually allow Paralympians to compete in the same races as able-bodied Olympians.
However, the price tag dangling above these new and shiny prosthetic limbs will have too many 0’s for many of the people who would like them. The Hero Arm, although created in collaboration with the NHS, ironically, is not available on the NHS due to the cost. At around £3,000, it is out of budget even though it is significantly cheaper than many of its similar competitors. Oliviera Barata’s designs are far from everyday prosthetics, and although her website does offer the option to be able to fundraise to pay for a unique design, this still seems an unlikely option for anyone who does not have money to burn.
Only for the rich?
While these designs and ideas should not be described as anything but remarkable, we must ask the questions about who it is that will ever actually get to see them? It seems they are not available to those whose only option is free healthcare, (which is a lot of people.) Especially with children, whose bodies are constantly growing and changing, it can be impossible to get a free prosthetic that either fits or lasts long enough before even considering an artificial limb that costs thousands. Due to this, these bespoke designs seem to be available only to a small target market, and it is usually only those in the public eye who would ever be able to wear Oliviera Barata’s design, and it is only those who could afford to pay extra for the Hero arm who would be able to wear it.
Sadly, this current situation punishes those who need prosthetic limbs. It can be an impossible task to find clothes that are suited to cover bulky angular metal or plastic parts. Even if an individual doesn’t want to cover up their prosthetic limb, there are other elements that need to be considered, such as having to fasten many buttons or zip and wearing something cool enough that allows the skin around the artificial limb to breathe. Also, the limb itself can be problematic, as some seem a shoddy and simplified attempt at mimicking real-life limbs, while others look clumsily dark and robotic. However, young inventor, Easton LaChapelle, is in the midst of finding an affordable and scalable solution through 3D scanning.
Easton Lachapelle began his interest in prosthetics while designing an animatronic bionic hand for a science fair at his school. After the science fair, he decided to not give up improving his design. Upon meeting with a girl with only one arm and finding out from her parents that a simply functioning arm could cost them upwards on $80,000, Lachapelle continued designing his prosthetic arms, never for personal gain or investment but to simply get the technology out there. Using 3D printing, the cost of the prosthetics drops tremendously and for LaChapelle, his goal to create comfortable and affordable prosthetics will be achieved.
Young innovators like Lachapelle, and even the work of Oliviera Barata and Openbionics, all lead towards making the lives of people who have to wear prosthetics better. Designer prosthetics are important for those who are lucky enough to afford them; they are creative emblems of our ability to be undefeated by what holds us back. Hopefully in the future, thanks to advances in 3D printing and with prosthetics becoming cheaper, it should become more of a possibility to receive designer prosthetics rather than the cumbersome models many people have to put up with currently. With the united efforts of LaChapelle, Oliviera Barata, Openbionics and the many many more foundations or individuals working towards somehow developing a way to better the current artificial limbs we have, the future of designer prosthetics seems hopeful.