Up until a few years ago, Albert Manero dreamed of building rockets and airplanes. He’d grown up in Tampa, and on clear days, he could see the shuttle launches as they blasted off from Cape Canaveral. The experience put him on a path toward the Space Coast, and he pursued undergraduate and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering as well as a PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of Central Florida. But then, as a grad student, he heard a radio interview that altered that course – and changed his life forever.
That interview featured the co-creator of the first 3D-printed hand. It inspired Manero. “I really wanted to be a part of that,” he says. So, he emailed the project team and got his name added to a global list of people who wanted to assist families in need with 3D-printed prostheses. In 2014, a local Florida family asked for help. Their child, Alex, was born with congenital limb difference; his arm was missing from above the elbow. “None of the traditional 3D-printed hand prosthetics were viable,” Manero explains. “This mom was just at her wit’s end because no one seemed to be able to help her son.”
Manero put a team together, and eight weeks later, the then six-year-old received his first full prototype bionic arm. “He picked up a rubber duck,” the scientist recalls. “We all cried. He cried. And the story just went global.” And not just global – when Alex received his second bionic arm in 2015, the story went viral, too. Thanks to a special delivery from Robert Downey Jr, it racked up over 10 million views on YouTube. From that first prototype, the nonprofit Limbitless Solutions was born.
Today, the organization strives to provide personalized, 3D-printed bionic arms to families at no cost. Recipients get to customize their prosthetic limbs by choosing from a collection of color palettes and designs themed around ideas of empowerment. In doing so, the arms become an extension of their personal expression too.
“It’s so much more than just being able to pick things up,” says Manero, who serves as the nonprofit’s president. It’s about challenging the societal idea of what is beautiful and also emboldening kids with limb differences to feel confident in their own skin. “For young girls and boys to have that moment where they identify themselves as uniquely beautiful,” he adds, “that’s the real magic behind the Limbitless arm.”
Limbitless and limb differences by the numbers
babies in the US are born each year with upper limb reductions
countries have been impacted by Limbitless devices. 75 arms have been given to injured Syrian children alone
is the number of custom-designed bionic arms Limbitless Solutions hopes to deliver to kids in need by 2020
is the estimated average cost of a comparable, traditional prosthetic limb
is about the cost of an average Limbitless arm today
is the amount of money families who have been helped by Limbitless Solutions paid
Source: CDC; Texas Children’s Hospital; Pediatric Limb Differences and Amputations. Joan T. Le, MD; Phoebe R. Scott-Wyard, DO; Space Coast Daily; Enabling the Future; Limbitless Solutions
Making moves: how the bionic limbs function
The Limbitless arm has come a long way since the team’s first prototype, with the latest generation evolving to include finger dexterity.
Note: drawing is for illustrative purposes
The bionic kids
Meet three children whose lives have been changed by Limbitless Solutions.
Accessibility for all
Limbitless Solutions has partnered with the Oregon Health and Sciences University to launch the first US clinical trial of 3D-printed bionic arms for children. Twenty children will receive bionic arms as part of the study. They hope the resulting data will help serve the FDA’s evaluation for market clearance – thereby getting insurance companies to fully cover the cost – and that it will also show that the arms improve the overall quality of life for children with limb differences. Watch the video below to learn more about their latest mission.
How can we support people with limb differences?
1 Focus on accessibility
Manero believes engineers should begin thinking about designing the world for everyone – and it has to start at the educational level. “If we are able to develop a generation of designers that are really focused on accessibility at its core, it could really revolutionize how we design everything, not only prosthetic technology, but how we design cities or buildings or anything that’s a shared space,” he says.
2 Promote access to STEM/STEAM
That said, interest in pursuing careers in these types of fields must exist in the first place. Limbitless Solutions believes engagement in STEM/STEAM education in schools can help nurture that passion in young learners. Their volunteers visit science and art classrooms with this mission in mind, and by doing so, hope to build a more inclusive future. Parents can also help build STEM/STEAM skills at home by encouraging kids to explore and question the world around them.
3 Teach children to embrace our differences
If you have children, educate them early on about not only limb difference, but all kinds of differences to help instill a sense of empathy. Use positive language when discussing differences with your child, educate them on terminology to use and encourage them to be considerate of people’s feelings and to treat others with fairness and kindness. Don’t forget to practice what you preach too. By fostering empathy, inclusiveness will follow.
4 Be loud
Spread the word about nonprofits like Limbitless Solutions that help people with limb differences. In the age of social media and social networking, it takes just a click to share an article with friends, to donate or to create a fundraiser in support of these organizations. Understanding begins with awareness.