Arming the World with Bionic Heroes
Innovative nonprofit builds bionic arms and other techs for people with disabilities.
Albert Manero just graduated from the University of Central Florida’s doctoral engineering program in December 2016; but his resume already boasts a nonprofit CEO title and recognition as a world-renowned mechanical inventor. Following a cold call request from Orlando mom Alyson Pring in 2014, Manero and his classmates embarked on a “summer project” to build a prosthetic limb for her son Alex who was born without most of his right arm. The conversation opened Manero’s eyes to “a blind spot for children’s prosthetics and disability technology. Because children grow so quickly, replacing any type of disability tech can be cost prohibitive.” Families also encounter frustrations with insurance barriers and equipment limitations (such as battery power and fit). “Kids are often told to adapt on their own. We want to flip that paradigm and give kids confidence through something that can grow with them,” Manero explained.
With the support of sponsors like Stratasys (a 3D manufacturer that donated supplies), Manero and his team “worked late nights after class to figure out how to make electronics work” with inexpensive off-the-shelf materials and the campus 3D printer. The result: They developed the world’s first 3D printed bionic arm! It works without an elbow (unlike other 3D printed prostheses) and cost only $350 to print ─ far less than the $40,000 that prostheses traditionally cost ─ put proved to be priceless. “It helps me to hold paper, my tray, my pencil and lots of other things… like giving hugs,” young Alex said in an interview with Huffington Post of his customized, “body-powered” arm.
That success ─ followed by a flood of equally worthy requests ─encouraged Manero to launch Limbitless Solutions, a nonprofit organization manufacturing personalized, affordable bionics and solutions for disabilities. “We’re blending art and engineering together in an effort to make something beautiful that kids want to wear and give them the chance to show off that they are more than just the loss of a limb,” Manero said. Pairing his love for “Iron Man” and newfound mobility strength, in 2015, Alex got a new superhero-themed arm delivered by Limbitless Solutions and celebrity Robert Downey Jr., who played the Marvel character! Yes, the creation is fun for kids but, more importantly, has superior functionality and adaptability. “Children will outgrow certain components and we do have to scale some parts; but we are able to with trivial material costs at that point because it is just refining the plastic with the same electronics,” assures Manero.
Thanks to sponsorships and contributions, Limbitless Solutions donated every custom-constructed arm thus far, which has benefited more than 20 families. Still in its infancy stage, the organization is focused on developing a stable, growth-oriented nonprofit infrastructure to meet the demand of families. “We are also trying to improve STEM education (Science, Technology,Engineering & Mathematics). We send engineers into the classroom to show children what they can do with technology and 3D design,” said Manero, who engaged undergraduate students in his senior project at UCF: Project Xavier. Now patent pending, it is another innovative, low-cost advancement that uses face muscle actuated wheelchair technology. “Project Xavier could help people with ALS, traumatic brain injury (TBI), MS and many others disabilities who can’t use a joystick. This would give them back the freedom of mobility to enhance quality of life,” Manero describes of his vision to instill hope from passion. “Our team found that people [with disabilities] were not being listened to, so we are excited to listen to what they need; and, as engineers, we love to solve those problems to make lives or tasks easier.” Learn more at www.3DHope.com or www.limbitless-solutions.org.