Capable of accurately manufacturing complex products, 3-D printers are having a revolutionary impact on companies in many industries, including a small, Japanese venture looking to make a breakthrough in prosthetic limbs.
The domestic market for robotic prosthetic limbs is small and lacks competition, making them expensive and difficult to obtain, said Genta Kondo, the 28-year-old co-founder of exiii Inc.
Kondo said this is about to change.
“The main point is that we use 3-D printers. When you try to produce something only in small lots, the initial costs tend to be very expensive,” the former Sony Corp. engineer said in an interview with The Japan Times. “But with 3-D printers, it’s possible to manufacture a single product without having to have metal molds, so the costs can be drastically reduced.”
In Japan, a robotic arm can cost around ¥1.5 million and most of them are made by Ottobock of Germany. But Kondo said products like the handiii, a printable plastic arm made by Tokyo-based exiii, may trigger a revolution in design that will make robotic limbs more affordable to those who need them.
Exiii has built a prototype with working robotic hand that costs around ¥30,000 to produce. When it debuted at South by Southwest, a major IT trade show in the United States in March, it drew large crowds.
Kondo said it will cost more to produce higher-quality products, but “I think we can probably make it for under ¥100,000. All we can say for now is that we hope to price the products between ¥200,000 and ¥300,000.”
Robotics technology has made rapid strides but it is still too early to expect replacement limbs to work like the real thing, Kondo said.
His firm is thus focusing on providing practical products that can produce an immediate impact.
For example, when one-handed people open plastic bottles, they often use their teeth to remove the cap, or hold the bottle under one arm so they can use their good hand to open it.
Most people would hold the bottle in one hand and unscrew the cap with the other.
“What one of the hands is doing is just holding the bottle,” Kondo said. “But that makes a huge difference . . . we are developing products to provide that function.”
So far, exiii has produced two types of handiii.
One uses a smartphone to pick up myoelectric signals sent from the brain to control the muscles. The smartphone detects these and conveys them to the robotic limb.
The other uses a sensor to detect muscle contractions that can be used to activate the robotic limb’s fingers. This basically allows people to apply strength to their arms in order to grasp objects with the handiii.
Kondo also said that if prosthetic arms become cheaper, they might become interchangeable, allowing different models to be swapped out for different situations.
However, because robotic arms are not in wide use, there isn’t enough information on functions needed or situations to address, he said.
This is why exiii plans to make its arm-control software and 3-D data open to the public. If the data is open source, people will be able to design and make their own limbs.
“By making (the programs and data) open source, there will be more related communities and more information shared,” he said.
Exiii said it has provided the handiii to research institutions ahead of its commercial debut, adding that it wants to execute the open source strategy and gauge the reactions first.
In Japan, people who lose a limb can qualify for government subsidies to cover the cost of prosthetics. But to qualify for the subsidies, they have to undergo training in the use of robotic limbs. Therein lies a dilemma: Hospitals and other medical facilities do not have enough prosthetic arms for training purposes.
Hyogo Prefecture last year started a fund to collect donations to purchase more prosthetic arms for children who need training.
From what he has heard from other experts in the field, Kondo said there are about 10,000 people who need prosthetic robotic arms but only 1 percent who have them.
Kondo said he got interested in creating robotic arms when he was a graduate engineering student at the University of Tokyo.
When he entered Sony, Kondo pitched the idea of making prosthetic arms but didn’t get a chance to follow through because the struggling electronics giant didn’t see the value in it.
“The market for prosthetic arms is very small, and it was not very cost-effective (for a company like Sony). So I thought it would have to be a small group that does this,” he said.
Kondo continued developing robotic arms as a hobby and decided to enter product contests, including the James Dyson Award, an international design contest.
He formed a team with college engineering pal Hiroshi Yamaura, who was working at Panasonic Corp., and Yamaura’s colleague Tetsuya Konishi.
After becoming the runners-up in the 2013 Dyson Award and winning awards in other contests, they decided to found exiii last October to produce the handiii.
Kondo said they received a Facebook message from someone who had lost an arm and wanted to try the handiii. This prompted them to launch their quest for reasonably priced robotic arms.
When it comes to developing a business model, Kondo believes opportunities abound.
Although the market is small, and there are only a few people using robotic arms, exiii’s goal is to provide people the option of using more than one limb to handle the various tasks they face.
“There are people who have two or three pairs of shoes, glasses and watches,” so exiii hopes to be able to realize a future where people who have lost arms can use interchangeable robotic arms, even for fashion needs.
Konishi is a designer, so the company has been focusing on minute details, including contours and color options, in its prototypes.
Kondo said robotic arms have generally been made to look like human hands because they look more natural, but exiii wants to go in a different direction so customers of its prosthetics will find them stylish as well.
This section, appearing on the second Monday of each month, features new technologies that are still under research and development but expected to hit the market in coming years.