In October 2013, General Electric engineer Lyman Connor met a boy on an elevator who would radically impact his discretionary time for the next three years.
Connor was in recovery from a serious bicycle accident - nine-skull-fractures serious - when he found himself in a hospital elevator with a young boy. Playfully comparing injuries, Connor found out that the boy had lost a hand and that his family couldn't afford to buy him a high-end electronic prosthesis.
When Connor was finally discharged from the hospital, he pledged to design an affordable bionic hand for that kid and others like him. An inveterate tinkerer, he started experimenting in his home workshop, discovered the advantages of 3-D printing, and hasn't stopped since.
"A full bionic hand was anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000, and I was thinking I could make something more affordable," Connor says in the project page demo video.
Three years later, Connor is close to realizing his vision with the Bionic Hand Project, which includes a nonprofit initiative that aims to provide advanced prostheses to needy patients at a low cost. He's also founded a for-profit arm, so to speak, through which he hopes to sell his technology to other companies designing prostheses. In November, Connor moved operations from his home workshop to a commercial space in Roanoke, Virginia.
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Connor's current bionic hand model, the Mano-matic, uses off-the-shelf components and design elements from the open-source Robohand project, a South African initiative in which engineers collaborate on low-cost prosthetic solutions.
The Mano-matic includes a cuff that reads electrical impulses on the forearm, similar to how a electroencephalogram (EEG) device reads electrical activity through the scalp. Those impulses are wirelessly beamed to a microprocessor and translated into inputs for the prosthetic hand itself. This basic open-and-close system is good enough that users can easily grasp most everyday objects, a cup of water, say.