ROANOKE (WSLS 10) – Hidden in the second floor of a nearly vacant storefront on Campbell Avenue in Roanoke is a project that may soon grab the world’s attention. Engineer and designer Lyman Connor of Roanoke is about to launch the Bionic Hand Project.
He explains how the hand would attach to the end of an arm where someone might have lost a hand, say in an auto accident, or fighting a war. “And then right here, there’s a mechanical connection on the end of the socket and it’s a twist lock,” he explains, trying to make the complicated technology understandable to a lay person.
He’s been working on the project in his garage for two years. He estimates about 3,600 hours of work on nights and weekends when he’s not at his day job as a designer for GE.
We asked if the user of his hand could pick up a cup of coffee and drink it. “Oh absolutely,” he said. He explained however that the technology is not advanced enough for someone to properly use a fork or spoon. But he thinks that’s coming. “There is no hand in the industry right now, that allows you to really pick up a fork properly and feed yourself or do any of the basic menial tasks that we take for granted day today,” he said.
Still, watching the hand in motion is impressive.
Conner uses 3D printers to create the plans he designs on his computer, including a rare high-tech printer, which will even produce products made of carbon fiber. Some of his machines were created by Form Labs, a company created by graduates at MIT. The hand is featured in one of the company’s recent You Tube video promotions.
Connor can print an entire hand in 13 hours, which seems impressive, but the genius is hidden in the process of making the hand functional.
An off-the-shelf product uses skin sensors to read electrical impulses, not unlike those for a polygraph machine. But what Conner created, his intellectual property, is the algorithm that converts the sensation to a signal that makes the hand open and close.
Connor got the idea for the bionic hand when he was in the hospital after a bike accident. Connor was banged up pretty badly and in a wheelchair when he got on an elevator with a family. “And the young man on the elevator just raises a hand and said at least you were born with your whole hand. And his mother quickly replied if we had $50,000 we would get you a hand.”
Connor thought he could create a better hand and for less money.
Working from a rough, mechanical prototype that people actually used, he developed his more refined electronic version. Now he’s ready to take it to market.
With a non-profit side called Handsmith that will make the technology available to people who normally wouldn’t be able to afford it.
The Business Model
He and a small but growing board of directors hope to do fundraising so money is on hand to provide the roughly $8,500 required to cover the costs of production. That part of the project is still in its early phase, but it’s a driving force for Connor. “We want to make ‘enabling devices’ at a fraction of the cost,” he said.
In addition to the non-profit side, Connor has a for-profit arm as well, called T3m, which he hopes will help him not just keep the lights on, but allow expansion of the fledgling company, which right now is funded by the $53,000 he took from his 401K. His business plan calls for him to sell bionic hands to prosthetic companies at a cost where they can both have a decent profit margin.
Connor moved into his new space on Campbell Avenue in mid-November. He’s calling it a micro factory. Eventually, he hopes he’ll fill the entire space with 3D printers and improved designs that go beyond hands to other parts of the body that lend themselves to replication using his process.
For now, he expects the hand will be helping people in Roanoke in the next few months. “So I started out saying I wanted to build one for someone and now we’re looking at six and I’m told that there’s a possibility of 10 before February 2020.”