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The complexity of bionic hands

Sometimes, you have to leave the laboratory or the meeting room to find inspiration. At least, that’s how TMC’s Masterclass Team came up with the winning idea for their project. ‘The six of us came together for pizzas and drinks,’ says Employeneur Jeroen Maas. ‘It was all very informal. We talked about our domestic lives and our clients, and before we knew it, we were exchanging ideas for our brand new project.’ Less than a year later, the Masterclass Team is making great progress on new functionalities of bionic hands.

A Masterclass for Masterminds

TMC’s Masterclass is a two-year program for a select group of promising TMC Employeneurs. The participants are stimulated to broaden their knowledge and their entrepreneurship skills. In the first phase of the Masterclass, the Employeneurs are taught the basics of other fields. The second phase is focused on the practical or business side of technological projects. In the third phase, the members put everything they’ve learned into practice: in project teams they form their own start-up and work at developing their own product. The current project falls under TMC’s Entrepreneurial Lab - a space within the company where Employeneurs cooperate across the boundaries of their fields.

This year, the Masterclass Team consists of six Employeneurs from a wide variety of cells: Vladimir Petrovic (Electronics), Cristian Dan (Physics) Matthijs Cox (Nanotechnology), Maarten Dam (Electronics), and Bart Reefman and Jeroen Maas (both from Mechatronics). ‘There’s another colleague who’s kind enough to help us,’ says Jeroen, ‘which is both very welcome and very valuable, and not too long ago we were joined by an enthusiastic student - but the six of us form the core of our team.’

How difficult can developing bionic hands be? 

The Masterclass Team embarked on their project with towering ambitions. ‘Soon after we started talking about bionic hands, we found out that the options for people in need of bionic hands is pretty limited. There are some very expensive models available, with complicated functionalities, but even these models have problems and are prone to malfunction. Then, there’s a broader range of bionic hands which are mainly cosmetic - they improve external appearances, but have virtually no other benefits for the user.’

At first, the team’s idea was to create a completely new type of bionic hand - an affordable model that would contain all the key functionalities. ‘We had to abandon that idea pretty quickly,’ Jeroen says. ‘As the six of us consulted our respective networks, we found out that developing an entire hand would be too time-consuming, especially since this is a part-time project: we’re doing it alongside our work for our clients. So we had to adjust our goals and set ourselves certain limits.’

Instead of building an entire hand, the team decided to focus on improving certain functionalities - which is complicated enough as it is: ‘At the moment, we’re very busy with the software. We want to gather as much data as we can, mostly about muscle activity in the forearm. Studying our own movements as well as those of friends, relatives and colleagues, we’re looking for patterns, trying to find out which types of muscle activity correspond with certain gestures. Then, we have to transfer those patterns into movements of the bionic hand.’

Part of the challenge lies in the complexity of the gestures. ‘It would be relatively easy if we’d only focus on, say, one or two gestures: for example to grab or release an object. But a lot of gestures are very similar in muscle activity and therefore hard to distinguish from one another,’ Jeroen says, adding, with a laugh: ‘that’s exactly what makes the project so much fun.’


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