News / Winnipeg

Winnipeg engineer develops cheaper prosthetic for kids

Engineer Matt Gale is using his 3D printing know-how to create a prosthetic hand he thinks can be sold for 'less than $5,000.'

Matthew Gale, of Northern Bionics, works on a child's prosthetic that he invented in his lab in Winnipeg Man., Oct. 6, 2016.

Lyle Stafford/For Metro

Matthew Gale, of Northern Bionics, works on a child's prosthetic that he invented in his lab in Winnipeg Man., Oct. 6, 2016.

A Winnipeg engineer has found a cheaper way to give youth amputees a hand—specifically, a controllable prosthetic that can open and close.

With modern technology, amputees can control prosthetics “myoelectrically,” which basically means the devices react to electric signals in the muscles of a residual limb.

“When you flex your bicep for example there are these naturally occurring electric signals that can be measured in voltage—and it can be used to actually control a (prosthetic device),” explained Matt Gale of Northern Bionics, who’s recent pitch for a cheaper youth version of such a device won him $1,000 at North Forge’s Pitch Idol competition.

Gale explained it’s an effective technology adult amputees appreciate, but it’s also costly and delicate—making such prosthesis impractical and inaccessible for kids who might out-grow them in short order.

“They’re very expensive, tens of thousands of dollars, and not practical… it doesn’t make sense for them to pay that much until they’re a little older,” he said.

Gale works full-time as an engineer specializing in 3D metal printing with Precision ADM in Winnipeg, but volunteers at the Rehabilitation Centre for Children (RCC).

“At the rehab centre, it was brought to my attention there’s a void in the market for an affordable myoelectrically-controlled prosthesis,” he said, noting he heard from families and the director of prosthetics alike that children face barriers in accessing the best technology for prosthesis.

That knowledge prompted him to combine his leading edge 3D printing know-how with young patient’s needs to create a prosthetic hand he thinks can be sold for “less than $5,000.”

“(That price point) puts it within reach of funding agencies and families, and within reach of a lot more children,” he said.

He keeps the price down with efficient material usage in the dialled-in printing process and takes advantage of open-source software.

Gale has completed one model already, and with his Pitch Idol winnings he’s working on the second working prototype which should be ready for testing this year.

He said things are “moving along faster now,” and if all goes well, he plans to “get it tested at (the RCC) and then refine it from there.”

He said he’s looking forward to fine-tuning the functionality, as the prosthesis could be controlled with different inputs.

“The electrodes that mount to your skin pick up the electrical signals. If you flex a muscle, it (registers) as a command… it sends a signal to the hand that says stay open, or close,” Gale explained. “There can be different command strategies—one pulse open, two pulse close, that kind of thing.”

The Manitoba Electric Vehicle Association, which awarded Gale the Pitch Idol prize, said his device “could dramatically improve the lives of millions of underprivileged children around the world.”

For all children engaged in rehabilitation, Gale’s plan for a myoelectrically controlled hand that can open and close would be life changing.

“I’m really excited to see how it works out,” Gale said.

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