Activists seek to give 3D-printed robotic hands to war amputees
KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — In a cozy computer workshop shining with cold luminescent light, a cluster of several 3D printers softly murmurs as it processes a print task.
At first, the printing heads only produce thin ovals of plastic. But soon, the recognizable contours of artificial phalanges and a wrist appear.
"This is how it works," says a tall bald man in his early 50s with a distinctive Scandinavian accent as he holds a ready-made white prosthetic hand model.
He softly touches a sensor inside the hollow forearm, and the artificial fingers clench into a semi-fist with a robotic buzz.
The man is Leif Bulow, a Danish national living in the Donetsk Oblast city of Kramatorsk some 530 kilometers southeast of Kyiv.
He is the founder of 3DLimbs. org, a charity with one goal: to give 3D-printed functional prosthetics to those who lost their limbs in Russia’s war in Donbas, and to do it for free.
A former Danish army serviceman, Bulow participated in United Nations peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Sudan, and Eritrea, and was deployed to hotspots in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Africa.
The latest of these jobs eventually brought him to Ukraine.
Between November 2014 and March 2017, Bulow served as a monitor of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission in Donbas. He observed the tense security situation north of the city of Donetsk on both sides of the combat line.
When his contract expired, Bulow married a Ukrainian woman, who is also an OSCE monitor, and settled in Kramatorsk, a city of 150,000 residents just 65 kilometers away from the trenches of war.
Over 20 years of witnessing human miseries gave him the idea to establish a charity for people disabled in hostilities. Ukraine — where ongoing war has left over 10,400 dead and 25,000 wounded — was a good place to start.
Soon, Bulow found local activists and volunteers in Kramatorsk who shared his drive.
One of them was Sergiy Gakov, a local philanthropist, engineering lecturer, and entrepreneur running a mid-size IT company called 3D.Farm. The company does 3D printing for other businesses and produces small 3D printers, known as Ulti-UA, based on popular fuel disposition modeling technology.
In the tense spring of 2014, Gakov and his friends actively supported the Ukrainian army during the early battles for Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. In August 2014, he was taken prisoner by Russian-backed troops and spent 22 days in captivity until he was freed in a prisoner exchange.
Today, Gakov still supervises volunteer assistance to Ukraine's army and runs a number of local social projects popularizing IT education among children.
It was his 3D.Farm's workshop at Geek Bunker, an IT hub in downtown Kramatorsk, where Bulow had the first artificial limbs printed and assembled for his charity.
The prosthetics' design is not overly complicated.
"It took us maybe about a week to engineer them from scratch," Gakov says. "The basic idea was to develop a quick, effective, and cheap production with the use of 3D printing and simple mechanics and electronics.”
Almost all the components, including the finger joints, are 3D-printed.
"The hands are designed for those who still have muscle activity,” Gakov says. “A person constricts a forearm muscle, slightly increasing its diameter, and the device's pressure sensors send an impulse to the small engine inside the wrist to get the fingers moving. It is a very simple and cheap technology."
The prosthetics are charged with a regular USB charger. In the near future, Donbas war amputees may have to routinely plug in their electric hands at night before bed — next to their smartphones and laptops, the engineer jokes.
Gakov presses on one artificial hand's sensor, and its fingers immediately take tight hold of a metal bar weighting some 1.5 kilograms.
"I also successfully tried to drink water while holding 1-liter bottles in such a limb," he says. "A user can easily employ the electric hand for usual everyday activities."
Just three 3D printers can produce all components of one limb in nearly 24 hours, without any human attention. After that, it takes 10 to 12 hours to assemble the device.
As of now, the custom production of one electric hand costs up to $350. If they manage to arrange serial manufacturing, the prime prices will be lower, Gakov says. Besides, 3D.Farm has also designed a purely mechanical model for beginners. Its production costs up to $90.
Meanwhile, judging by eBay, the average fully functional bionic electric-driven hand costs between $10,000 and $15,000, although many smaller companies produce their own 3D-printed models for at least $1,000.
"These are just simple prototypes," Bulow adds. "We also have a dream to design and produce advanced devices with individually moving fingers. But it would be a far more complicated technology requiring much more resources."
Playing the robot
3DLimbs.org aims to give out their prosthetics to war amputees, both military and civilians, at no cost.
Bulow says he intends to get the funding from Western charities, including those working in his homeland of Denmark, and also from the European Union.
However, Ukrainian bureaucracy is a major obstacle.
In order to legally launch production, the activists need a medical manufacturing license, and this process can take many months.
Meanwhile, Gakov and Bulow spend their time upgrading the devices and presenting them at hi-tech exhibitions abroad.
Another obstacle is the amputees’ natural fear and reluctance to start using a weird and initially uncomfortable gadget. As a result, it proved difficult to find amputees willing to test the devices and provide detailed feedback, the activists say.
"Very often we see that many people gave up to their disabilities,” Gakov says. “They say: 'I don't want this, I've made peace with the fact that my hand was amputated.’ It's very important to drag the person out of this reluctance to fight for a fulfilling life."
Nevertheless, being a tech geek, Gakov firmly believes that robotic 3D printed prosthetics are the inevitable future of medicine.
He believes it’s more comfortable for users if the prosthetics don’t imitate the appearance of natural hands but instead give away their artificial origin.
That is why the inventor supports overtly hi-tech-looking electronic devices like the ones he designed for Bulow's charity.
Unlike identical prosthetics, such "hands" usually trigger a wow-effect and help promote greater acceptance of amputees.
"It is essential when it comes to children," Gakov says. "When, for instance, an amputee kid comes to school with a cool electric hand stylized like Iron Man's metal glove, he will almost certainly become the subject of immense curiosity from other children around him."
"I believe,” he adds, “that with such a device, that child will easily make friends and feel himself an equal member of society, free of alienation and hostility."
Danish-born social activist Leif Bulow tests new 3D-printed bionic hands at a computer workshop in the city of Kramatorsk on June 20. (Volodymyr Petrov)
Volunteer and entrepreneur Serhiy Gakov speaks of his 3D printing business at a computer hub in the city of Kramatorsk on June 20. (Volodymyr Petrov)