"e-NABLE was founded in 2013 by Jon Schull, a research scientist based at Rochester Institute of Technology, when he started coordinating offers for aid and requests for 3D printed hands in the comments of a video about the Robohand. e-NABLE began as a match-making service centered around a map, but the community quickly branched out into designing and improving 3D printed prosthetic device and building systems for better distributing them. Today the community numbers in the thousands and has delivered hands in 37 countries. Watch here to see Jon Schull discuss the origins of e-NABLE and watch this TED talk from Ivan Owen, co-creator of the Robohand, about the community."
The crowd-sourced effort is a marvel to watch as new products are invented, tested, improved, and ultimately approved by a geographically remote team of people working generally in their spare time. It is hard not to be encouraged by the interplay between knowledgeable industry veterans and simply smart and enthusiastic volunteers with no background in prosthetics but who are willing to give an idea a try. The brilliant cross-pollinating effect between professionals in different engineering and other disciplines as they work together to solve problems feels a little like what I imagine the world of work will be like once robots have taken all of our jobs.
The crowd-source teams like e-Nable are dealing with all kinds of challenges, including dealing with the fact that there are differing regulations around the world aimed at protecting people from ineffective or even dangerous medical devices. Most of the volunteers have little if any experience with medical or prosthetic safety, but one can imagine that may not be high on the list of concerns for those with no use of a hand and no money or insurance to pay for a traditional device. There have been a number of thoughtful efforts to work with relevant regulatory authorities to deal with this unique approach to meeting the need. Much of the approach seems to be a pragmatic effort to set expectations about the limitations of these devices and to discuss available alternatives and when those alternatives may be a better option.
One of the interesting points of interplay here is that some industry participants are doing this work for free while others are trying to make a living at providing prosthetic innovations. For example, until e-Nable came along, this area was pretty much the province of professional prosthetists. There are also new entrants in the prosthetic device world, generally working on developing a better device with sophisticated motors, materials and electronics. It will be interesting to watch whether there will be a de facto splitting up of the customer demand by the professionals staying up-market with the more advanced electronics and higher end materials and the non-profit teams staying with the (unfortunately) insatiable demand for lowest-cost prosthetics.
While most of the conversations between industry participants I have seen have been cordial, it seems like there has to be some inescapable tension between the for-profit and non-profit players. For example, when early efforts by the non-profit community and the media to describe the high cost of hand prosthetics may have inflated the real figures, there was a call by the professionals to stop mischaracterizing the savings opportunity. That issue seems to have been dealt with pretty well and is covered pretty conscientiously by e-Nable in its FAQ. It will be interesting to see whether intellectual property protection will ever be used to deal with the conflict should the two groups start to try to address the same markets. Perhaps if all goes well, the efforts of the non-profit community will enhance opportunities for the professionals. There may be opportunities for all involved if they are able to work together and be mindful of the strengths and weaknesses of each other.
All in all, I'm cautiously optimistic that this new trend of crowd-sourcing answers to complex global problems can serve as a example for other challenges we face. Hyperloop anyone?