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Open Hands: How A Young Bristolian Is Changing the Robotics Industry

Copyright: George Devereaux

Copyright: George Devereaux

Joel Gibbard’s Open Hand Project is opening eyes to open source. In his first piece for Rife magazine, George Devereaux speaks to a young person who is set to change the lives of amputees and engineers across the world.

Copyright: Open Hand Project

Copyright: Open Hand Project

Joel Gibbard is a 23-year-old Plym­outh University robotics graduate whose tal­ent, selflessness and drive are pushing the bound­aries of robotic prosthetics and 3D printing.

Based in Bristol, Joel runs the Open Hand Project, working towards building prosthetic hands that are roughly 100 times cheaper than current leading prosthetics, making them more accessible to the general public. Joel started the project only last year, and in such a short space of time, he has seen it take huge leaps forward, with great success from his Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and his relocation to the University of the West of England’s Robotics Lab, a ‘technology incubator.’ On the face of it, this project has the potential to help a ‘handful’ of people but its potential spans way beyond amputees.

What inspired Joel to get into robotics? Joel comes from a technical background, growing up with two architects for parents. Furthermore, his dad had always been into electronics, it seems like Joel’s talents run in the family. As a kid, Joel would work with his dad building robots, he started learning from an early age. But when it came down it, asking; ‘What got you into robotics?’ I was answered with: ‘Toys got me into it, primarily Lego’. He explained how he would receive the Lego Technic kits for every birthday and Christmas, he couldn’t get enough of them. Who would have thought such an innocent childhood hobby, could lead to one man making such a difference to so many lives.

But why did Joel choose to focus on creating robotic hands? ‘Natural movement is what I find most interesting, that’s what drew me to hands’. This fascination drove Joel to visit his local library and take out ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ a book he describes as the bible of medicine. Reading this, he gave himself a grounding in how the human hand worked, and was able to begin designing the robotic hand from there, all off of his own back. ‘I guess it’s kind of selfish, but I tend to like to work alone’ he says. Joel has so far ran the whole project by himself, saying I like the control, working with others when you’re not paying them is difficult, you can’t say no that’s wrong, go back and do it a different way’.

Copyright: Open Hand Project

Copyright: Open Hand Project

At the heart of the Open Hand Project is 3D printing. This technology has actually been around for roughly thirty years, however only recently has it began to be harnessed by the masses. The first printer was created by S. Scott Crump, who invented the process of ‘fused deposition modelling’ (FDM) used by the printers. Crump patented this technology back in the eighties, restricting this innovative idea’s use by other people. 2009 saw the expiration of the patent, which sparked a massive revolution in open source 3D printing. Joel saw the opportunities it presented, and got involved. ‘What inspired me,’ he tells me. ‘Is the idea of being able to take a thought, put it on paper, create it in software and then have it as a physical object.’ The first things Joel created were a small cube, and then a penguin, admitting, ‘The first time you do it is absolutely incredible’.

Although currently the Open Hand Project is all about supplying affordable prosthetic hands, Joel says this is just the beginning. ‘The importance of it stems not what it can do on an immediate time frame.’ This technology has the potential to change the lives of thousands of people, but surprisingly, in the UK alone there are only roughly 300 hand amputees every year. Obviously Joel wants to help these people, and amputees throughout the world, but the bigger picture here, is about changing people’s views and opinions on the technology available to them. ‘The grand scale of it, is to show how 3D printing can be used to make advanced technology, through the open source model, in a financially viable way.’

This technology has the potential to change the lives of thousands of people, but surprisingly, in the UK alone there are only roughly 300 hand amputees every year.

Joel truly believes that open source is the way forward, it could revolutionise the health industry, meaning faster development of treatment, and lower prices. Patents are currently crippling the industry. A private company will come up with a new treatment, and slap a patent on it straight away, to protect their intellectual property. By the time the treatment has made it through clinical trials, the patent has nearly expired, and so the company ramp up the price in order to make the maximum return on their venture. ‘I think it’s a flawed model, the person who ends up getting screwed over, is the very person who needs it,’ says a critical Joel. ‘Health systems need to adopt a shared and open source model, in order to cut down the delay between a treatment being available, and a treatment being affordable.’

Joel shares all his designs with the world, this is the very nature of open source. Doing this means anyone can get ‘their hands on his hands’. This doesn’t however, seem to faze this very modest robotic engineer. ‘I’m not even concerned about taking credit for it, I just don’t want others taking credit for it’ he says, modestly. He went on to say, ‘If someone ripped off the project, I’d be delighted! Because if they were in another country, and they started making and providing the hands to people, that’s fantastic because it’s getting it [The hands] out there.’


Joel expects that the adult model hand will be available for testing next year. However, the hand will need to go to clinical trials before he can release it officially as a prosthetic device, which he aims to accomplish by 2016. Following this he hopes the child’s hand will be available the following year. His work does not stop there, Joel spoke of other bionic devices he had planned on the back burner, including exoskeletons and devices to help aid the visually impaired. ‘We’re still using Victorian technology… we’re in the 21st century, why should people be putting up with this?’ Joel says. He is looking at the USA as the biggest market for his hands, however he added, ‘Ultimately I want to get this technology to developing countries, that’s where is will do the most good’.

The Dextrus Hand can connect to an existing prosthesis, making it easy for anyone to use it. Liam Corbett was the first amputee to test out the hand, saying ‘I would be proud to wear this, it would make me feel more confident’. The Dextrus is a lighter and more convenient upgrade from Liam’s existing hook, technology which Joel claims is outdated. Liam is just one of the thousands of people the OHP will benefit.

This is happening right here in Bristol. If you’re interested in the Open Hand Project then head to their website here. If robotics is more your thing, head to the Bristol Robotics Laboratory.

What do you think? Should technology like this be available to everyone or is it something we should monetise? Let us know: @rifemag