Matthew Holt

Bespoke Limbs and Real Mass Customization

There’s a new world emerging of customizable materials and it’s being led in health care by designers like my old friend Scott Summit. Scott designed products like an early prototype of the Palm V (yes, there was a life before the iPhone!) and servers for Apple and Silicon Graphics, but in the last five or so years he’s got very interested in the human body—particularly artificial limbs.

Artificial limbs are an interesting challenge for an industrial designer both because mass production doesn’t do a good job at addressing it and because most of them are interested in form as well as function. Scott started doing his first prototypes on real people three years ago when it became possible to use 3D printing relatively affordably to create bespoke parts customized for individual human needs.

3D printing isn’t quite at a Moore’s law reduction in cost—but $5,000 will buy a hobbyist’s machine, even if artificial limbs are made on $800,000 devices, and the quality and resolution of the products is improving, as is the ease with which scans can be made for a completely customized product.

Now Scott is CTO of Bespoke innovations which has attracted huge amounts of attention for a tiny start-up including a front page NY Times article. Orthopedic surgeon Ken Trauner is Chairman and they raised $3.4m in 2010 from Attractor Ventures (a Seattle-based angel group). Their first set of products are fairings for artificial limbs.

There’s going to be two types of fairing, a straight up material for around $4,000 and for fashion, metal plates with leather wrap and extra details for around $6,000. Bespoke is not selling the core artificial limbs—for which the most expensive part is metal hardware which can cost up to $30,000 or much more depending on whether it’s above or below the knee. Scott told me that despite the publicity about veterans losing limbs from IEDs there’s a much bigger market in people with amputations from the complications of type II diabetes. There’s also the possibility of doing scans out in the field (say in developing countries) and sending the fairings back there.

Of course, there’s unlikely to be a huge market in bespoke fairings for artificial limbs alone. Scott’s not ready yet to talk publicly about what’s coming next, but the fairings are what Scott calls the trailer to the movie—and the script is being written and actors already being auditioned for the next phase. But we can expect Bespoke to be part of a movement towards huge growth in customization of medical products, as design, localization of manufacturing and 3D printing all come together. Definitely a space to be watched.

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