AsiaLIFE explores the click and go approach to giving people new limbs, using well-designed and cost effective prosthetics. Words by Peter Cornish.
CEO and founder of Vulcan Augmetics, Rafael Masters, experienced the challenges faced by physically disabled people early on in life. Growing up in the south of England next to a school for the disabled, and then taking the role of carer for a disabled friend at university, he had witnessed first-hand the struggles they confronted in their daily life.
Rafael came to Vietnam to work in educational management, a role that brought him in close contact with special needs students, some of whom had physical disabilities including missing limbs. With a long held love of design and mechanics, Rafael had been working on an idea that would enable amputees to design and build their own prosthetics and was building the capital needed to launch a company.
A chance meeting with Akshay Sharma, CEO of real estate company Hoozing, brought forward the plan and saw the launch of Vulcan Augmetics in 2017. Working closely with Ho Chi Minh City based venture builders, Alley 51, the company has been building and prototyping augmented prosthetic arms for the last year at their design studios in Phu Nhuan and Binh Duong.
If you look at the prosthetics market currently, the majority of limbs are designed to copy the real thing, but functionality is often lacking, Rafael explained. The human hand is amazing and you can’t copy it affordably, and for the developing market such as Vietnam the costs are prohibitive. The process is labour intensive, adding to the cost, and there is often no guarantee of support once you have the limb.
And this is where the Vulcan Augmetics approach gets interesting. Recognising there is little money to be made selling expensive prosthetics to poor people in developing countries, why not offer a basic, low cost model that can be upgraded later? And recognising that a new prosthetic can increase amputees’ employment opportunities; why not create a limb that enhances job prospects by being designed for a specific role?
In the United States, the average amputee faces costs of up to USD$1.4 million throughout their life. Compare this to an entry level Vulcan Augmetics cost of USD$450 and the difference is life changing. Getting in to the game with a low cost affordable new limb, amputees have the opportunity to increase their income through wider job prospects. They can then buy upgrades when they can afford it.
Designing a business ecosystem that makes money by helping users to improve their lives, Vulcan Augmetics are building a space where it makes economic sense to provide the first prosthetic for free. Now priming the pump for first generation funding, they are working to get their designs into the labour market, proving that amputees can earn money and be valuable members of society.
Their goal is to show that their prosthetics are not just a second level imitation, but can be designed so that the wearer can do a better job than those with real limbs, removing the stigma attached to the disabled and enabling them to function at an enhanced level. “It’s about being better, we can make them superior. Amputees can lead the way,” Rafael explained.
What Are The Products?
So, aside from a socially oriented business model, what makes Vulcan Augmetics prosthetic limbs a game changer? The answer is a unique, modular design that clicks together like Lego, with components that can be interchanged and upgraded depending on user requirements. Although there are elements that are ‘one size fits all’ a complete, operational limb is customisable.
Their launch product is an arm comprising six components – fingers, palm, wrist, forearm, socket and brace – designed from elbow and below. The mechanics of the prosthetic arm are complex, but the user is not as reliant on it as a leg. If a prosthetic arm brakes, the impact on the amputee’s life is not the same as with a broken leg.
To receive a prosthetic limb the product must be carefully fitted to the amputee’s stump which requires scanning and individual moulding, a process that requires skill and time and is difficult to do at low cost. Vulcan Augmetics takes a 3D scan of the stump and uses two plates to ensure a perfect fit to the arm. These are the only individual custom designed components and all other parts are standardised to click in place.
With the remaining standardised parts installed with a simple click and turn, any breakages or upgrades can be ordered quickly and cheaply online, rather than having to wait for a complete new limb to be manufactured, delivered and fitted. If a finger brakes there is no need to replace the whole hand, just click and go.
As the limbs’ components are designed for specific work-related tasks, the wearer can change them depending on task requirements. This is about user convenience. Just click-on the parts you need for a specific job and in many instances, you can perform better than an able-bodied person, Rafael explained. All the connectors are standardised so there’s no fuss or drama.
The first prosthetics are being designed for simple, manual jobs, such as waiters or car park ticket attendants, that will enable under-educated amputees to enter the labour market. Once they have increased their earning ability they can buy upgrades that will enable them to do more skilled jobs. Future upgrades include a computer mouse that can be used by people without hands by placing it in the palm of a prosthetic.
What Does The Future Hold?
Working with fab labs and open-source design, Vulcan Augmetics plans to scale rapidly and distribute globally. They are also working with businesses to fund the entry level limbs as part of their corporate social responsibility and provide internships for those who receive the limbs. Working with strategic corporate partners to identify job requirements they then recruit amputees and build models for the specific jobs.
They hope that every arm given for free will eventually be passed on once the recipient has upgraded. Each arm has a plaque with the previous recipient’s name on it, allowing them to pay forward what they themselves have received. It’s initiatives like Vulcan Augmetics that are changing the work space by using business practices to address and solve social issues.