By Rafael Vazquez Barragan, Rotaract Club of Monterrey Cumbres, Nuevo León, Mexico
Three years ago, the nephew of one of my best friends was born with a congenital condition that required one hand to be amputated. As a result, he had trouble keeping his balance and when it came to taking his first steps, he fell repeatedly. He was unable to lift himself up with just one hand and would just cry until someone could help him get up.
Watching him inspired me to help. I gathered several of my best friends who, like myself, had knowledge in robotics. Never would I have imagined that I would end up making prostheses, with the little knowledge I had on the subject. But as we began researching, we developed a prototype for our first model prosthetic limb. It was incredible seeing our efforts come together into a hand-crafted prosthesis made out of wood and springs, with sensors carrying signals from the brain to the artificial limb.
The potential impact slowly began to dawn on us, as we realized we could help not only one person, but perhaps hundreds or thousands. In Mexico, there are more than 27,500 amputations a year and only 2,500 prosthetic limbs are produced annually. This means that less than 10 percent of the population has access to one. The problem is not a lack of production, but the high cost.
Experimenting with different kinds of technology, we looked for a bio-compatible material that would let us get away from having to use titanium, a very expensive material typically used in prostheses. We began working with ABS plastic, an opaque thermoplastic and amorphous polymer that can be used with 3D printing. By using thermoplastic polymers, we reduced the cost by more than 90 percent and also adapted our model to be a good fit for children. Our processes let children choose a robotic prosthetic limb with interchangeable superhero designs. To make our effort more sustainable, we began to look for strategic and commercial partners.
We teamed up with our university’s robotics team to present our project during a FIRST Robotics competition in New Orleans and received the Engineering Inspiration Award, which celebrates outstanding success in advancing respect and appreciation for engineering within a team’s school and community. The project was also nominated for a 2019 Rotaract Outstanding Project Awards
We continue to work with different organizations, including Rotary, who have offered us support since the beginning through our host club, to expand our project and help more people.