R&D for healthcare is costly, but has less easily pursued financial gains- when lives and well-being are on the line, nobody likes to hear somebody whining about money. With prostheses, the closed system can be a hindrance to advancement as people count pennies and figure out it's just not worth it to spend tens of thousands to increase balance or grip strength, on a design that's worked for years.
The Open Prosthetics Project says, "Prostetics shouldn't cost an arm and a leg", and they are putting their money where there motto is. They have changed the approach to meeting the needs of disabled people by turning to open source and reverse engineering on their projects. Reverse engineering has long been a bad word to the corporate world. As soon as your technology is on the market, somebody is going to take it apart and figure out how to make it themselves, thus becoming competition. Or worse, they may find major flaws that could embarrass the company and cost millions. Companies spend a lot of money on research and development, and they don't like to have all that effort go to waste. But for prostheses, reverse engineering means the difference between vast improvements, and reinventing the wheel for every varied situation. Now they can take a design that already works, and find ways to fit it to different needs and lifestyles, or improve on general problems.
One such project is the Body Powered Hook project. As the simplest and most common upper body prosthesis, it's something we're all familiar with. Grasping hooks at the end of an armcup that the user operates by secondary, unrelated movements of their body. They've been around for decades, and come with a myriad of challenges for users. The OPP came to life when founder Jonathan Kuniholm returned from Iraq without his arm, but with three different prostheses, one being a BPH. Immediately, Jonathan and his partners at Tackle Design saw ways they could make improvements on the design, and thus improve the lives of millions of disabled people. Rather than a grasping hook which is limited by the strength of springs or user, the prototype uses a 'vector prehensor'. It's a pin and slot set up reminiscent of adjustable plier and vise-type wrenches found in a garage which relies on the movement of the pin to change the fulcrum of the hinge, thus increasing or decreasing the pressure with with the graspers close.
Another project is called the pediatric trainer. Imagining children with amputations is a sad thing, but imagine being a parent trying to facilitate your child learning to operate their new prosthetic when they're still having trouble with natural motor skills like walking or operating their remaining hand! Children and parents must attend physical and occupation therapy sessions with specialized trainers who help the child learn to use and understand their prosthetic by asking the child to complete a task such as gripping an item, and providing positive feedback when the child completes the motion required to accomplish this task. It is a time consuming and stressful process for the child and parent. OPP seeks to create an automated training system that can measure the movements and force of the child's effort, and play appropriate feedback information. This way, children will have constant reinforcement of their work, rather than only getting the precise training in physical therapy sessions.
By developing projects and opening them up to the public, not only do they allow people to take their ideas and create them in more cost effective ways, but they also increase the number of people looking at a problem, and increase the number of creative solutions. Just like with software, new flaws can be found more quickly, and innovative changes flow more freely.