A Welsh father whose baby son’s arm had to be amputated has developed a custom bionic limb for baby Sol. Ben Ryan got the inspiration for the arm after studying the way spiders make their webs, and was prompted to develop it after being told there was nothing the NHS could do for Sol until he was at least a year old. Mr Ryan, a former psychology lecturer, was not prepared to wait, and after developing some initial designs, he manufactured the limb himself on a 3D printer.
Ben Ryan, from Menai Bridge on Anglesey, said: “It was likely to be three years before he could be fitted for an electric device. I thought I could do better for my son. By encouraging him to use both arms during this period of early brain development, we believed Sol would become more likely to adopt prosthetics later on. Current prosthetic arm technology for infants dates back to the Victorian era in many cases. They are ugly and often rejected early on. Unfortunately, newer technologies are often unsuitable for children under three and there is evidence that the earlier function can be introduced the better.”
Sol (named after the solar eclipse on the day of his birth) was born in March 2015 with an undetected clot in his upper left arm. Surgeons advised amputation through the elbow joint, but Ben and his wife Kate persuaded them to save as much of their son’s lower arm function as possible. After being told about the lack of help available, Ben began his project. First, he used rolled-up pieces of foam taped to Sol's elbow to see what would happen. Within minutes, Sol was banging his toys with his hand - and his foam arm. It was the first time he had tried to use the left arm since the amputation. It was the breakthrough moment for Ben. From there, developing a better prosthetic arm for young Sol became an obsession. Working on the kitchen table with bits of copper pipe and plumbing fittings, Ben came up with an idea for a new design that would operate a hand using tiny movements of the elbow. Convinced it would work, he walked into a newly opened innovation laboratory at Bangor University and asked them for help. Using state-of-the-art Artec 3D printing technology at the innovation lab, Ben and the university staff were able to turn a mish-mash of DIY store parts and imagination into something much more useable.
Today, Sol is two years old, and has a new prototype of an arm and hand that can grip, with a moveable thumb. For this new arm, however, ben knew he needed to scan Sol’s arm, but was concerned his son might not be able to keep still long enough to produce a scan using the sensitive Artec scanner at Bangor university, so he used a £20 Microsoft Xbox Kinect scanner plugged in to his laptop to scan Sol’s arm while he was asleep. Having taught himself the basics of product design and development using the Fusion 360 software, Ben is now working closely with Paul Sohi from software company Autodesk, who used the same software to design the world’s first 3D printed sports prosthetic for Rio Paralympic cyclist Denise Schindler.
Mr Sohi said: “It’s been inspiring to work on this innovative and ambitious project It is amazing that, despite Ben having no background in product design, he’s taught himself enough to create something that will not only help his own son Sol, but potentially lots of others facing the same challenges too.”
Instead of the three months it would usually take to cast and build a fibreglass prosthetic through the health service, using Ben's method, a new arm can be built and printed from scratch in a matter of days. It means not only is Sol getting the early intervention his family are convinced he needs, it has opened up a whole new world of opportunities for his father. Ben has given up his day job to concentrate full-time on prosthetics, setting up a new company called Ambionics, with Sol firmly the poster boy for the new venture. Despite being a fledgling start-up, Ben has already won some big name backing. Along with Bangor University's Pontio centre, Ambionics is also being supported by the Life Sciences Hub Wales and its entrepreneurship programme.
So far, the whole project has been funded by family and friends, but will be the focus of a crowd funding campaign launched on St David's Day (Wednesday, 1 March). Ben wants to raise at least £150,000 to satisfy medical authorities his arm prosthetics are safe to use, finalise patents, and to develop the design. If he can raise even more, he wants to see medical research trials to back up his own theories on how young children learn to use artificial limbs. But, as the business moves forward, the focus always returns to Sol; the “Ambionic Boy.”