Life and Limb

The future of the prosthetic workforce

Prosthetics have come a long way, but it would still be very difficult for someone using many of the artificial arms available to them to do some basic things, like carry a tray. It’s a simple enough task done by many in restaurant and service-oriented jobs, but if you have an artificial extremity made out of plastic or metal, this is going to be a challenge. If the goal is to recreate a human body for wearers of prosthetics, then this is an intractable one.

“There’s no point in trying to copy the human hand,” Rafael Masters, Vulcan Augmetics ( CEO, said explaining the design decisions around its specialty prosthetic made for real world testing at The Coffee House.

The prosthetics company has set a goal of delivering prosthetic arms to 30 staff members working at the cafés. Instead of giving recipients conventional arm replacements, Vulcan Augmetics is testing out its new modular prosthetic, one with a detachable handpiece that can be replaced with something like a special, magnetic tray holder.

It’s not quite a hand, but Masters argues that freeing prosthetic design from anatomical recreation is key to realizing full potential of both the prosthetic and the wearer. This partnership project is called UpLift and is part of a larger project to enhance the capacities of prosthetics wearers. “We believe that amputees have a huge opportunity and they can be considered as ‘upgraded’ instead of ‘broken,’” he said.

Rafael Masters grew up right next to a school for children with disabilities in the South England town of Alton and would visit the students regularly. Shared interests, like the tabletop fantasy board game Warhammer, bound him early and fast with the special needs-focused school’s population. This gave him an early exposure to people born with birth defects and chronic illnesses like muscular dystrophy. But the first time he saw a prosthetic that really made him take notice was somewhere much different, on the other side of the world. It was Detroit, Michigan. It was in the future.

“It was Robocop, actually,” Masters said remembering the film. A sci-fi enthusiast since youth, the film—a futuristic tale of a police officer rebuilt as a cyborg after a horrible accident—fit neatly into his interests then.

One scene hangs with him specifically. “There’s a brilliant moment in one of the films where they go to the shooting range and… his leg just opens and the gun comes out of it in to his hand,” said Masters. “That was just the coolest thing I’d ever seen in my life.”

He remembers realizing then that “prosthetics can be much more than a copy of a body.”This is what a prosthesis could and should be, he reasoned, an upgrade on the human form.

“You step back,” Masters explained. “You don’t think ‘oh, that poor amputee.’ You think ‘oh, that person’s badass.”

The concept that became Vulcan Augmetics dates back to at least 2012 when he was exploring the possibility of creating a 3D printing lab where folks could make and buy their own individual prosthetics. Over time, the concept grew to become what it is today: an enhanced, low-cost prosthetics service specifically serving beneficiaries with tools designed to help them rejoin the workforce. It’s a big concept with what is potentially a huge impact. Only around a third of Vietnam’s population with disabilities is employed. At least 600,000 Vietnamese would benefit from a prosthetic.

The prosthetic is only one part of it, the other is “making poor people rich people,” as Masters phrases it. If amputees are no longer indigent, they can develop buying power to cover their basic needs to even have disposable income. Vulcan Augmetics’ prosthetics are modular as a competitive advantage: the users will have the ability to customize their prosthetics with changes that make it functionally different for different tasks or even cosmetically different, like a more skinlike outer cover

Self-made Man

Vulcan Augmetics is similar to a social enterprise in that the company will offer a certain quantity of prosthetics as donations to amputees who are waitlisted. It will also sell to those waitlisted who can pay the prosthetic USD1,000 price tag and be the sole vendor for the device’s hardware upgrades. The average prosthetic available today is priced around USD30,000, Masters said. This amount would fund the entire initial UpLift project through crowdfunding and private donors, half this amount has been generated already. UpLift calls for 30 prosthetic arms to be deployed by July. After that, Vulcan Augmentics plans to deliver 250 by the close of 2019. The company intends to bring 10 percent of the disabled population that is not working back into the job economy.

Masters said the device owners who receive a prosthetic would be encouraged to sponsor the next person’s arm as a way of empowering them. Rather than just charity—”I’m not a huge fan of charity… but in long-term work, you need something more sustainable,” Masters said—the devices would be a way for those with disabilities to regain independence by creating value for themselves and potentially the next person who will get a prosthetic. “We want to say, ‘they’ve absolutely earned their product,’” he said. “You don’t make people proud with pity.

The Vulcan alluded to in the company name appears in Greek mythology as the son of Jupiter, the king of Gods. In the tale, the deity is angry at having been promised a beautiful child but recieved an ugly one instead. The gods cast the baby Vulcan out of heaven into the sea. He breaks his legs upon arriving to earth. On earth Vulcan becomes a celebrated blacksmith and jewelry maker. Learning of his talented cast off son, Juno calls him back to heaven and Vulcan refuses choosing to remain a veritable self-made man.

“I think that’s awesome,” Masters said. To him, the story is about the power of technology to create new value rather than replace what was lost. “We do this with hearts already,” Masters said citing the electronic pacemaker as an example.

As a sci-fi fan, Masters said he’s pleased to see much of the fantasy worlds he grew up seeing realized with advances in technology. How are we not in “Robocop” territory yet, he muses still.

“I just didn’t get why with the technology we’re not doing that now,” he said. “We’ve got maker technology, we’ve got 3-D printers… all the technology and the ingredients are there.”

Images by Carolyn Chee

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