With his Bionicohand DIY prosthesis and his MIT prize, Nicolas Huchet is one of the best ambassadors of the maker movement. While his latest project, Handilab, is competing in the Google Impact Challenge, we met him in São Paulo this summer.
On several occasions, Makery has reported on amateur prosthesis projects developed in fablabs by following the principles of open source. Today, many projects exist that offer reliable and inexpensive prostheses to be produced locally in labs, for the 11 million people worldwide whose hand has been amputated. The Frenchman Nicolas Huchet, distinguished by the famous Massachussets Institute of Techonology (MIT) of Boston, reflects on his path as an amputee.
Let’s start with the latest hot news: you are among the finalists of the Google Impact Challenge France competition. What is it about?
The association My Human Kit that I created is taking part in the Google Impact Challenge France competition, the winning prize of which is € 500,000. We are defending the Handilab project, a slightly different fablab since it is specifically linked to disability. It is not reserved only for people with a disability, but has within its members a resourceful person who knows the disabled world very well and will be able to help produce, assemble or repair prostheses in open source. The objective is to develop an inexpensive prosthesis, easily repairable and that you can assemble yourself or collectively with other members inside the handilab.
My Human Kit today develops an open source prosthesis, certain parts of which you print via 3D printers. In fablabs, you find motivated people who exchange, participate, share. It is more difficult to find prosthesis specialists, but it is one of the challenges the handilab project is addressing. Our Bionicohand prosthesis is open, still in the prototype stage, but rapidly changing. Since the projects in the final are subject to the vote of Internet users, you can support ours on the Impact Challenge website!
Can you tell us about your path as an amputee and the Bionicohand project?
At 32 years old, I am one of the developers of Bionicohand, a collaborative project of open source prosthesis. In 2002, following a work-accident, I had to have my forearm amputated. At the time, there was only one artificial hand on the market. The first experiments of robotized prostheses were only just being started in laboratories. Ten years later you can find on the market more advanced prostheses that allow you for example to manoeuvre all the fingers. Unlike the one I wear everyday that already costs 9,000 euros these new prostheses cost between 30,000 and 90,000 euros and are not reimbursed, even partially, by social security. I would like to own such prostheses but they are far too expensive.
How did you discover fablabs?
By chance! Thanks to friends that worked for an exhibition in Rennes dedicated to video and digital art. The LabFab, fablab from Rennes, was invited and it showed 3D printers, circuit boards, robots. When I saw the 3D printers, I asked if it was possible to print a prosthesis. Hugues Aubin replied they had never tried but they could test it. That is when he brought up the idea of the HandiLab project for the creation of open source prostheses.
Some time after, I went to the LabFab where members had already tested printing a plastic hand. The result wasn’t really of any use. We discovered on the 3D file-sharing website Thingiverse a well advanced robotic hand that could serve as a cornerstone. This hand is part of the Inmoov project developed by Gaël Langevin, a robot, all the parts of which are published in open source licenses. This cornerstone would allow us to truly launch the project.
How did Bionicohand progress?
The whole team is very happy to have reached this level. But it remains a prototype even if it is very promising. As a “user” who is depending on such an object, you soon reach its limits. The pressure has no return, the execution speed is slow, the resistance of the materials used is too feeble. During this event, the teams of the first Rome MakerFaire were present and invited the project to participate. This event truly launched Bionicohand. During the summer, John Lejeune, fabmanager of the LabFab, lent me his 3D printer. I started printing, I trained in electronics, the use of 3D software, 3D printing on the job…
How is Bionicohand positioned compared to other similar open source projects?
There is another rather similar project, also open source, OpenBionics.com, that is a little more advanced. The project benefited from a first crowdfunding campaign to which I participated to buy the prosthesis in version 1. It is a promising prototype too but also unusable on a daily basis. We are in contact, and also with the Brazilian who is developing a bionic hand based on Inmoov too. Each time I visit new places like fablabs, makerspaces, I talk about the project, I try to make it attractive and get people to collaborate. Numerous teams are working today on open prostheses.
According to you, is it conceivable that a fablab manages to produce a prosthesis usable on a day-to-day basis or are labs limited to prototyping?
Today, it seems to me difficult. We will have to follow the development of fablabs in terms of usable materials, machines available and skills acquired. One of the objectives is to make prostheses inexpensive and easily producible. For the time being, printing titanium is fine, but the cost is very high.
“A fablab must not only be seen as a place to develop technical and technological solutions. My life changed with my disability. I have a physical problem, but in the lab, with the community, my limitation became my motivation.”
The social innovation taking hold in fablabs is central. It isn’t the result that is the most important. But the progression, the decision-making, the capacity to produce things by ourselves with the members of the fablab. With Handilab, we want to develop the social innovation of the project, that offers to grant access to a fablab, to work on one’s prosthesis, but mainly to feel good about oneself. Regaining self-confidence as an amputee, seeing one’s limitation as an opportunity are just as important. Gaining a sense of belonging in the society is one of the challenges. What happened to me could happen to many people.
Can one imagine that open source prosthesis will turn professional?
At the LabFab, the panel of expertise is very broad but expertise specific to disabilities such as orthotists and prosthetists are much rarer. The Berlin Fab Lab received funding from the world leader Ottobock. These prosthesis professionals (the one I wear comes from them) wish to develop relationships with the maker world. It is an interesting lead. We will try and do things together. I also had discussions with a number of research labs and companies specialised in prostheses. Although they are familiar with 3D printing, they know that today it is difficult to offer reliable and robust enough products with this technology.
You have become an icon for makers, by making it to the front page of Make Magazine, receiving an MIT prize or being present in mainstream media (daily newspaper Le Monde recently drew a portrait of you for example). What did this fame do for you?
The media coverage brought me many contacts of makers, companies, but also people who need an artificial limb. And I was able to get in contact with the numerous initiatives like E-nabled, Limbitless, Advancer Technologies (muscular sensors), Openbionics.com, Openbionics.org. Projects are born in fablabs such as in Tours. It also made visible and reinforced the important open community of enlightened amateurs.
What do professional prosthetists think about this?
Orthotists and prosthetists are already interested in 3D printing and scanning. Proteor hence contacted me at the beginning of the adventure. Ottobock wishes to develop relationships with the world of makers. The radical approach of labs is of interest to them. Making less expensive prostheses for all the people than cannot afford them is also interesting for them.
Until now, Bionicohand published all the advances of the project under open source license. How will this evolve?
It is obviously an issue. We have seen how Makerbot, open source editor of 3D printers at its creation, went from an open model to a closed model and had to fall out with part of its community. I don’t think open source is an aim, but rather a means, a tool that allows you to collaborate on a large scale.
“ I wish to develop a modular prosthesis. Like a platform where the base remains open source, to which you can add modules that could not be open source. I am thinking about something close to the Linux Ubuntu distribution that is free and open source, but that also allows you to use some closed software.”
Nothing to stop you from thinking that tomorrow, companies will offer modules sold on Amazon that will benefit the ecosystem. However, I want people to be able to do it themselves, maintaining this opening. And if they come across difficulties to build it, they should be able to go to a fablab to assemble, repair, DIY, even improve it with other people. This is the idea at the core of the Handilabs project. We need to retain this DIY or DIWO (Do it with others) aspect.
What would be the prosthesis of the future according to you?
A prosthesis based on the principle of the ARA project, the modular phone from Google, could be the prosthesis of the future. One could easily add or remove modules depending on situations, move from a myoelectric system (with electrical muscular sensors) to a mechanical system (just with a harness) in case of problems.
The prosthesis of the future must be affordable. In countries like France, health systems bear the expenses of quite advanced prostheses reaching 10,000 euros. This enormous cost is not accessible to a vast majority of humanity. Thanks to the future Handilabs, prostheses could become available for a very low cost and users could get involved in the construction and production of their prosthesis.
My encounter with a fablab changed my life. Even if the project came to an end today, it will have been an incredible experience. Producing things yourself gives meaning to what you do, to who you are. You become aware that you can change things, you meet new people to do things together. I would like to share this experience.