Ac­tivists seek to give 3D-printed ro­botic hands to war am­putees

Kyiv Post - - National - BY I LLIA PONOMARENK­O PONOMARENK­[email protected]

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.

Start­ing up

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.

Print­ing hands

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 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)

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