Drawing on his experience with GE’s FastWorks, Lyman Connor has hammered out a product development methodology to make highly functional bionic hands affordable to all who need them.
By Mark Shortt
There’s a part of Lyman Connor that’s always wanted to take things apart and see how they work. The 57-year-old father of four is a software engineer by day, working full-time as the global design lead of turbine controls at General Electric in Roanoke, Virginia. He’s also the founder and chief technical officer of Handsmith, Inc., where he designs and builds multi-articulated prosthetic hands by night. But that very identity and his entire life were shaken to the core on an October afternoon in 2013, when Connor, an avid cyclist, sustained serious injuries in a cycling accident in his hometown of Roanoke.
“I got hit by a car, knocked into the opposing lane, and hit again,” Connor said during a presentation at FUSE, the Formlabs User Conference, at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in June. “Neither one of them had the decency to stop. And I found myself at a point in my life where I was recovering, and going through the neuro ICU at a hospital, and working my way back to some semblance of normality.”
On the day that he was released from care, Connor encountered a young man as he was exiting the hospital. Although he still couldn’t see very well as a result of head injuries that he suffered during the accident, he came to the realization that the young man didn’t have a hand. He heard the boy’s mother mention something about the price of a hand being $50,000.
“At the time, with my jaw wired shut, all my ribs broken, 13 skull fractures, hips, shoulders broken—everything—I just thought, why so much? Why does it cost so much?”
A Stark Reckoning
The answer, Lyman Connor found, was a raw value proposition that exploits those already burdened by the dehumanizing stigma of not appearing “normal.” It’s about leveraging the vulnerability of people who are presented with an opportunity to remove that stigma. Commercially available bionic hands, he said, range from those with just basic functionality to the high priced models that look like human hands.
“For someone who wasn’t born with a hand, it’s ‘How badly do you want to be accepted into society?’ he said. “This is a step towards being accepted into society? And for those who lost one, it’s ‘How badly do you want to get back to normal?’ And I thought that it was very callous—just bending somebody over a barrel who’s already having a difficult situation.”
Connor was also disheartened when he found that although many of the hands on the market today are quite complex, their functionality is often limited. Instead of continuing to use them, many decide to abandon them, creating still more upward pressure on prices to compensate for the high cost of failure.
“They have a really hard time doing some menial task, like grabbing a napkin off the table to wipe your mouth, or just to pick up a fork at will. None of that’s been really perfected yet,” he said. “If you spend $50,000 or $60,000 on a car, or something else, and you don’t like it, you can get rid of it, right? There are all kinds of avenues to get rid of it. If you spend $50,000 or $60,000 on a hand, it sits on your shelf because you can’t transfer that to anyone. So there’s an incredible cost of failure associated with trying to entice and lead someone down a path and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to get you back to being mobile again; we’re going to give you some extra mobility; we’re going to return you back to normal by giving you this prosthetic hand.’”
Connor’s period of recuperation from his cycling accident gave him the time and space to explore something that he’d never thought much about before—how to make a better, lower cost prosthetic hand that anyone who needed one could afford.
“It was just a constant, ‘How do these things work, and why do they cost so much?’ Connor recalled. “Knowing that I wasn’t going back to work for several months, I wasn’t focused on things that were 9-to-5-centric. It allowed me to think outside my normal box of being a staff engineer at GE, focused on power plants. I was able to consider something completely outside the realm of what I’d worked on in the past, and it intrigued me.”
A New Mission
Connor started down the path of developing a prosthetic hand, looking at what universities and other research institutions had pulled together.
“I saw something in my mind’s eye that I wanted to develop and design, and I pursued that. I started out with FDM printers, and I would start, principally, at night. I’d wake up in the morning to a ball of cotton candy in my printer, or something that looked like a ball of cotton candy, or yarn that was unraveled. And I thought ‘My God, how am I going to do this?’”
He started to outsource parts to service bureaus to get them printed. Eventually, he would make a technological leap of faith and buy some 3D printers of his own. “I sent some STL files to Formlabs,” Connor said. “They sent me back my parts, and I said ‘This is it!’” Connor reached into his savings to buy a printer. The next morning, he woke up to his part being printed. “I have four children, and it was like my fifth one was born. I was able to hold something that I had only envisioned, and it was an incredibly emotional moment for me. It let me know that I could go forward and pursue my project to completion.”
Not a Hobbyist’s Project
Fast forward to October 2017, and Connor has accomplished more than taking costs out of the bionic hand. From a purely technical standpoint, he’s proudest about solving one of the most difficult challenges confronting makers of bionic hands—building a viable, opposable thumb that mimics the performance of its natural human counterpart. Although we probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, our ability to move our thumbs to touch each of the fingers of the same hand is widely recognized as an exceptionally important developmental and fine motor skill for human beings. Without this skill, it would be difficult to grasp, hold, and manipulate even the simplest of objects, such as a pen or pencil.
“The human thumb is a work of art, and it will [easily] oppose the index and middle fingers, for example, in a two- on-one grasping pattern,” said Connor. “And that’s an amazing, precise pattern that we take for granted.”
The first people who really took notice of what Connor was trying to accomplish were at Formlabs, a 3D printer manufacturer in Somerville, Massachusetts. In an interview with TechCrunch at CES 2017 earlier this year, Formlabs CEO Max Lobovsky spoke of what he saw in Connor’s ambition to make highly functional, affordable prosthetic hands. Although some people might use the term “homemade” to describe the prosthetic hands that Connor is making, Lobovsky said that Connor’s project is bigger than that.
“There are a lot of people developing a lot of interesting things—professionals designing products—and they don’t always have access to the tools that they need, and the capabilities they need,” Lobovsky told TechCrunch. “This isn’t just a hobbyist’s project. He is a trained engineer, but he’s doing this far faster and with far [fewer] resources than something like this would have taken in the past. This is a project he started on the side, but it’s something that is really seriously, commercially relevant and has the capabilities of the $50,000 high end hands.”
3D Printing Lends a Hand
When Connor began working to make a bionic hand, he was 3D printing fewer of the parts than he is today. Components of the knuckles, for example, were being made on milling machines. But the quality of the materials he’s using to print the parts has jumped considerably since he began working in collaboration with Formlabs.
“The materials development on their end has been really one of the driving forces that has allowed me to go forward,” said Connor in a phone interview. “Because as they improved their tough resins and durable resins, it allowed me to say, ‘Okay, I don’t need to use billet aluminum for that anymore because this part has the same sheer strength as aluminum in the configuration that I’m using it.’”
“He was doing [3D printing] originally just to prototype and develop it faster,” Lobovsky told TechCrunch. “But the plan now is actually to produce each hand custom fit for a person. And because it’s printed, not only is it lower cost for this sort of low volume project, but actually custom fit for a person.”
Today, nearly all of the hand, with the exception of the motors, gears, and electronics, is 3D printed.
Connor has used two different printers—the Formlabs Form 2, a stereolithography (SLA) printer, and the Markforged Mark Two, a machine capable of printing strong, durable parts reinforced with chopped carbon fiber—to make the hands. For one hand, he printed the fingers on the Form 2 using Formlabs’ Tough blue resin and the rest of the hand—the frame—on the Mark Two using a blend of Onyx and Kevlar. He also recently enlisted the Mark Two to make the entire hand—frame and fingers—with the black Onyx-Kevlar blend.
The prints coming off of the Mark Two resemble parts that came out of an injection mold, said Connor. “They are incredibly strong. You can drive a car over the parts of this hand and it won’t break.” He said that he plans to use both printers going forward because they allow him to give some individuality to each hand that he makes. “I can make each hand look really flashy, I can print it in all black, or I can print different color fingers, different color shields, and things like that for it,” he said.
More Help from His Friends
Connor said that he had been trying for a quite a while to get people interested in his product development project. But researchers at Indiana University-Purdue, in Indianapolis, soon followed Formlabs in taking notice. They offered to help with the cosmetics of the hand under development.
“They took my design in Rhino, imported that into a SolidWorks environment, and restructured all the cosmetics for the hand such that it’s a modular design, so the fingers plug in and lock in place,” said Connor. “Any cosmetic that’s damaged can be replaced. The hand comes out of the box with a five-year warranty, and if we give you a hand at age 15, we’re going to support your growth cycle all the way up to an adult. We’re not charging you for multiple iterations to complement your growth pattern.”
At this point, Connor said, the cosmetic design is done. Handsmith has its supply chain set up for all of the motive means, for all of the drive mechanisms, and for all of the electronics. Connor is currently working on adding a myoelectric array with built-in artificial intelligence. “It learns muscle movement, and then you can personalize the myoelectric signals for each user,” he said. “It makes it more prone to open when you say ‘open,’ and close when you say ‘close,’ rather than just articulating on its own.”
At one point, Connor said, a tool manufacturing company that admired his goal of making affordable prosthetic hands offered to pay for having the molds made in China.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do that to you guys.’ They told me, ‘Oh no, Lyman, it’s okay. We’ve done very well financially and we want to give back.’ And I said ‘But this will only give me one hand size—I’m going to be making multiple hand sizes for different people. Think of how much all those molds are going to cost.’ When we extrapolated it out, we were at a half million dollars real quick. And so I said, ‘Let’s just stick with the 3D printer.’”
How He’s Doing it
Besides using 3D printing, Connor has also eliminated the high cost inherent in traditional business models that seek private investment capital in the millions. “When you have all that initial cost, you’re returning your investment, and your payoff, and that dictates your product price,” he said. “It’s typically going to be in market with everyone that’s manufactured something similar before you. I’m just doing things on my own, using off-the-shelf components that are readily available and are mature. I’m not using anything novel. My goal was to design something such that, if I lost my hand, or one of my children lost their hand, I would put it on them. That’s how I approached it, so I’ve never cut costs knowing that it would be detrimental to the integrity of the device. The hand that we designed is as functional and as robust as the $50,000 hand—I mean, exactly.”
The way that Connor approached the project reflected his experiences using GE’s FastWorks, a product development methodology based on principles developed by Eric Reis, author of The Lean Startup. He described FastWorks as an iterative process in which product developers conceptualize, design, build, and test their product. Most important, they learn from customers and then apply that feedback to building a better product, faster.
“It’s like this concentric circle,” he explained. “You’re going around and around until you get to what’s going to be your minimum viable product.”
The minimum viable product has all of the aspects that are critical to quality, and serves as a platform that the developer can build upon. The FastWorks decision making process also includes a crucial point in the development cycle that Connor called an “out gate, so to speak, an exit.”
“It’s like ‘pivot or persevere,’ where, at some point, you might realize, ‘Hey, this design’s unsustainable, or it’s broken. I’m trying to drive a car that has a flat tire, so let’s completely change the design, or let’s just scrap this.’”
Although he said he never considered scrapping anything, Connor acknowledged that the product development process, difficult as it is, led him to think a lot about the necessity of working to overcome challenges. Some of what product developers hear along the way is painful, and many people don’t know how to handle it well.
“They think ‘Oh my God, now I have to have a war with this person because they didn’t like my design and they didn’t support me!’ rather than just learning from that failure and coming back strong again,” he said.
Empowering Girls in STEM
While reflecting on that, Connor said he thought about other challenges that need addressing.
“I also thought about how incredibly underrepresented women are [in engineering and technical fields], and how that complicates things, and how they don’t feel empowered in technical settings. I have a 13-year-old daughter, and I surely don’t want anyone on this earth telling her that she can’t do something, or she’s not capable. And so I put together some STEM camps, and I am happy to say they are chock full, man.”
Connor resolved to put together a summer STEM camp to teach girls the fundamental concepts of digital manufacturing, from using SolidWorks to discovering the basics of electronic circuit design and C/C++ programming. He pitched the idea to SolidWorks D’Assault Systemes, and was given 60 software licenses to carry out his vision. And then he pitched it to Formlabs.
“Formlabs said ‘Thank you very much, Lyman. This is great! Here’s all your resin; here’s all your trays’—everything! I pitched it to Purdue. So, those are the three—Purdue University, Formlabs, and D’Assault Systemes—that came and helped me to pull this together by giving me the course material and consumables that I need.”
When D2P first spoke with Connor on a Friday in June, he was excited about starting one of Handsmith’s two-week digital manufacturing camps the following Monday. “It’s going to be bad ass,” he said about the curriculum. “I’m going to teach all the fundamentals.” Handsmith’s website says that the course has no prerequisites and is “ideal for children who like building, making, creating, and programming.”
Students at the camp are taught to use an Arduino microcontroller, which teaches them not only C/C++ programming and electrical prototyping, but allows them to build and program soft circuits. They also get to print their final projects on Formlabs Form 2 3D printers.
In a late-summer interview after the camps were completed, Connor called them “an incredible success.” Five visiting students from Stanford University, with backgrounds in mechanical, electrical, and biomedical engineering, assisted as instructors. During the first week of camp, students designed and created a popular gadget—fidget spinners—and then got them to work. In the second week, devoted to electronics, campers worked on a persistence of vision project that had them assembling an entire circuit board.
“They were able to identify a Zener diode [and distinguish it] from a regular current blocking diode,” said Connor, adding that they learned about capacitors and crystals, too. Students also learned what an 8-bit processor is, what Boolean means, and the difference between analog and digital, he said.
Connor wasn’t cutting corners when he put together the curriculum. He knows that where there’s no challenge, there’s no reward, and he wants to pull back the curtain on the real opportunities that the new world of digital manufacturing holds for today’s youth. Not one to underestimate the potential of children, he’d rather challenge and inspire them to make products that will impact people’s lives in a positive way.
“If you want to call yourself a maker, it isn’t downloading something off Thingiverse,” he said. “It’s knowing the basics of electronics, it’s knowing how to solder, it’s knowing how to use a glue gun, a 3D printer, and knowing how to use some type of design interface. There are some incredibly smart kids out there that want to do this. And I want to let these kids know that each one of these is a lucrative career, in and of itself. I just want to expose them to it and give them the opportunity.”
Last year, Handsmith sponsored five children from the inner city to come to the camp, Connor said.
It goes without saying that successfully executing a product development project like the one Connor is pursuing requires a great deal of intestinal fortitude.
“You have to have, number one, the willpower and the passion, but you have to have the technology, as well,” he said. “For me, actually pivoting towards an SLA printer was a major step change for me, and it let me know that everything was within my grasp of completing this and making a difference in other people’s lives. At the time, I felt like I had a product, and so we pulled together Handsmith.”
Handsmith (https://handsmith.org), a 501c 3 non-profit organization (NPO) based in Roanoke, Virginia, is dedicated to raising money needed to provide high-quality bionic prosthetics to people who otherwise could not afford them. People who need a prosthetic hand, but are not eligible through insurance or cannot afford one on their own, can apply to Handsmith to begin the process of receiving one. Handsmith asks applicants to contribute at least some amount to the making of their new bionic hand, and covers the rest of the cost by drawing from its available funding. The organization works with Lyman Connor to create 3D printed bionic hands and provide them to the recipient’s local prosthetics company for proper fitting.
“It’s about impacting people’s lives, changing the demographics of who can afford a hand,” said Connor.
“I’m not talking about a $50,000 or $60,000 hand. We’re going to try to do something very much cheaper, that’s qualified for Medicare or Medicaid insurance. And the nice part is that if you can’t afford a hand, come to us with what you have—it may be nothing, but you’re still going to get one.”
Connor told D2P that GE Corporate donated $10,000 to Handsmith in June 2017 through its employee matching contributions charity, matching the amount that employees raised. The funds allowed Handsmith to buy workstations to run SolidWorks and various integrated development environments (IDEs). He also said that Amazon recently reached out to Handsmith, which led to Handsmith’s becoming a registered NPO at AmazonSmile (https://smile.amazon.com).
For now, Connor is focused on making the best prosthetic hands possible. He knows that if they’re well received, they could help fund the future development of other enabling devices, such as articulating wheelchairs, different trans-femoral appliances, and full arm prostheses.
“It’s all about helping people,” he said. “I’ve had people say ‘Hey, Lyman, I’ll invest $600,000. I want you to change the price of the hand, I want to change the distribution, I want this name. Let’s go, you’ve got to be all in, man, let’s do it!’ And I just said, ‘No, no thank you’ because it didn’t rest well with what I set out to do, which was to help people that don’t have hands and can’t afford them.”
Looking back on it, Connor said that his recovery from the accident gave him another chance to align his priorities in the right direction. “This is what makes me get up and run every morning,” he said. “I’ve had a life changing event, and it didn’t make me religious. It made me conscious that there are a lot of people in need on this earth, and that I have the capability to impact some of those people. I want to work as hard as I can in the time that I have left to make the biggest impact that I can.”