ORLANDO, Fla. – Albert Manero said he was stuck in traffic listening to the radio when he heard an interview with a man who built 3-D-printed mechanical hands.
When he returned to his research lab on the campus of the University of Central Florida, he told everyone he wanted to be part of that.
Eight weeks later, he fitted a child with his first bionic arm, capturing the attention of a Hollywood megastar.
Limbitless Solutions was born.
A viral video created in 2014 by The Collective Project for Limbitless Solutions shows Manero leading 6-year-old Alex Pring down a hallway to pick up his mechanical arm.
He soon realized he was picking it up from someone who knew a little something about robotics: Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr.
“Each one looks the same,” Alex said in the video.
“Actually, I think yours looks better than mine,” Downey replied. “Hey, good job, Albert. Albert has made it so affordable, I’m probably going to be farming out a lot of my work to Albert, too.”
Ten Years Later
“The only thing we ask for is wear glasses in this room,” Manero said as he showed the Solutionaries team the lab that grew over the years from his kitchen table.
That lab includes an injection molding machine and computer software that allows his team to customize what the final product will look like.
“Every family that goes through our program gets to go on our website, they have a portal login, and then they will actually go through customizing their bionic arm,” he said.
Manero said Limbitless uses 3D printing and in-house manufacturing to develop and advance bionic arms for children — focused on reducing the weight and cost compared to traditional devices.
“My background as an undergraduate was in biomedical sciences as my major, however, my minor was in studio art,” said Viviana Rivera, a researcher for Limbitless. “It’s not often that you can find a place that can really harness and utilize both to such a great extent.”
A lightweight plastic sleeve is created from a 3-D-printed mold, and workers piece everything together in the lab to create a work of art that will help a child use a hand that grasps, holds, points and shakes.
Children, like Alex, use specially-developed video games to learn how to use their new hands.
Manero said UCF faculty members Matt Dombrowski with the School of Visual Arts and Design and Peter Smith with the Nicholson School of Communication and Media, helped Limbitless leverage the video game-based training that converts muscle flexing into the video game character’s actions.
“When they flex, we’re actually reading that using electromyography,” Manero said. “Just like the bionic arms work, the video game control reads the muscle flex on their bicep.”
Since 2014, Limbitless Solutions has helped 50 families with bionic hands. Current trials will add 20 more.
Traditional prosthetics can cost between $40,000 and $50,000. Limbitless Solutions fundraised $10,000 per participant including a travel stipend to offset any financial burden to the families, Manero said.
He said being a solution for so many families was his endgame.
“That was our goal, and it doesn’t end with just the bionic arm or just the design work, but that these can be something that grow and we can spin off into new technology,” he said. “As we continue to develop our work at Limbitless, the goal is to just continue to add more of those solutions into our portfolio -- ways we can make new accessibility technology that’s both functional and very expressive.”
This article is part of “Solutionaries,” our continuing commitment to solutions journalism, highlighting the creative people in communities working to make the world a better place, one solution at a time. Find out what you can do to help at SolutionariesNetwork.com.