For Hoàng Văn Dũng, one test of a prosthetic arm comes ahead of the rest: a push-up.
Dũng, a 27-year-old from Thái Nguyên Province in Northeast Vietnam, had previously been unable to find a prosthetic that could support his daily routine as a personal trainer. Now, through the use of a durable and sleek robotic arm with a customised hand module, he can keep up the pace.
“Before, it really wouldn’t work for me. Other [prosthetics] I tried couldn’t handle any weight, or were just too hot and uncomfortable,” he said.
Dũng and nearly 20 other amputees across Vietnam were among the first to find an alternative to traditional prosthetics through Vulcan Augmetics, a social enterprise startup based in Ho Chi Minh City that utilises 3D printing and maker-based manufacturing to create prosthetics that adapt to the needs of the user. After three years of research and development, they officially launched in October last year.
In choosing to design and produce components that can be easily modified and upgraded, the company is able to adapt with users long-term, rather than offering traditional fixed prosthetics. They focus on developing affordable arms with units tailored to the daily demands of a given occupation or task – be it working in the garden or delivering a cup of coffee in a crowded cafe.
Rafael Masters, CEO and co-founder of Vulcan Augmetics, believes that amputees should have a say in developing artificial limbs, augmenting them to meet their own needs.
“The future of wearable technology should be driven by those who rely on it most – people performing essential tasks with it every day,” said Masters. “Up to now, someone might have spent the same on a prosthetic arm that they would on a car, but there were few, if any, ways to customise it.”
While recent figures are hard to come by, in Vietnam a legacy of war and landmines contributed to a large amputee community that stood at over 200,000 as of 1996, with that figure only growing each year through traffic accidents and workplace-related injuries.
Today, difficulties in returning to the workforce remain among the longest-lasting issues facing amputees, as disabled populations are over three times more likely to be unemployed in Vietnamese cities, according to a 2013 International Labour Organisation report.
While wearable technology has, in years past, been synonymous with the Apple Watch, fitness trackers, or VR headsets, its applications and uses are growing – especially in the medical space. What may have once been fodder for cyberpunk science fiction novels is well on its way towards breaking into daily life, as the lines between consumer gadgets and medical technology converge.
Some forecasters say it’s merely the beginning of a wide-ranging uptake in wearable tech that could tackle a number of complex health challenges facing amputees. James Hayward, Principal Analyst at IDTechEx, a UK market research firm focusing on emerging technologies, notes that developments in bluetooth connectivity and the ubiquity of smartphones have laid the groundwork for the field to expand.
“In terms of medical technology, there are more and more opportunities for companies to create their own sophisticated, wearable modules – sometimes at a fraction of the cost – that could one day make their way into mass markets,” he said.
What began with chunky prototypes has been refined to below-elbow units featuring nimble fingers and hands with a wide range of motion
Though wearable technology itself encompasses a wide and still-changing array of devices, it extends to urgent and intensive sectors of healthcare such as prosthetics. The growth of 3D printing in recent years, central to development of customisable limbs, has also allowed companies to break away from a one-size-fits-all model in prosthetics.
Likening prosthetics to consumer products that can be updated over time, Vulcan currently produces its bionic arm and hand modules in-house to fit individual specifications. What began with chunky prototypes has been refined to below-elbow units featuring nimble fingers and hands with a wide range of motion.
The industry standard for a below-elbow artificial arm often runs from $5,000 up to the tens of thousands for complex variations. However, smaller companies like Vulcan and its competitors have been able to make them at a lower cost by using different manufacturing styles like 3D printing and injection moulding, processes that allow for wider choices of materials and which contribute to faster production.
The retail price for Vulcan’s first offerings is between $1,000-$1,200, making them far more accessible to those who need them. Similarly, Open Bionics, a UK-based company which first released a robotic prosthetic in 2018, sells prosthetic arms for around $3,000 each.
“We’re a social enterprise first and foremost,” Masters said. “But it will be important to list prices and detailed product information upfront, directly on our website, so people know what options are available no matter where they’re located.”
For startups aiming to break down barriers to artificial limbs worldwide, this decentralised approach helps place the customer at the forefront. In the past, proximity to hospitals and clinics may have excluded many from even beginning the process of finding a prosthetic; yet opportunities to see product options and collaborate in building prosthetics online presents a way to address geographic hurdles.
Some developers have begun using tablets to quickly perform 3D scanning, while Vulcan Augmetics employs open-source software to link designers in different locations. Although certain aspects of fitting a prosthetic do require clinics, others, like replacing standardised components or upgrading an attachable module, allow for the work to be done from afar.
For now, making bionic arms with individuals in mind also provides ample opportunity for companies like Vulcan Augmetics to experiment with new styles, ranging from the futuristic to the colourful. Phạm Văn Được, Vulcan Augmetics’ head of product and tech support, was the first recipient of the start up’s robotic arm.
“It’s really cool,” he said. “My friends say, ‘you look like Iron Man.’”