Japanese start-up revolutionizing electronic prosthetic arms.

Last year, three young Japanese engineers quit their cushy jobs at major Japanese consumer electronics makers and formed a start-up with a big vision: to bring about a revolution by producing affordable, stylish and highly functional electronic prosthetic arms.

These engineer-turned-entrepreneurs are aiming to create futuristic-looking, cool electronic arms that they hope wearers can use as a form of self-expression, just as they would with sneakers or eyewear.

Genta Kondo, CEO and co-founder of Tokyo-based venture company exiii, is in charge of software development for the company’s advanced prosthetic arms. His co-founder Hiroshi Yamaura supervises mechanical design, while another co-founder, Tetsuya Konishi, is responsible for external design. The three of them had worked for Sony and Panasonic before setting out to start their own business in 2014.

Robotic prostheses were first developed in Germany half a century ago. Unlike ordinary artificial limbs, electronic arms provide wearers with a high degree of functionality, enabling them to move their hands to grab and hold objects. Yet observers say that high prices inhibit their widespread use.

Thus, exiii has decided to create electronic arms focused on one single motion: grabbing. Sensors strapped around a wearer’s arm detect muscle signals, and five artificial fingers linked to a built-in motor automatically change finger angles according to the degree of muscle expansion and contraction.

Currently an electronic prosthetic arm costs a minimum of around 1.5 million yen ($12,364), but this single-focus approach allows the company to slash the prices to less than one-tenth of that figure. There are several reasons behind the cost reduction. For one thing, exiii’s electronic arms function on a much simpler basis and are not designed to move their artificial fingers individually.

Additionally, the company has used 3D printers to manufacture nearly 60 different parts. It also uses general-purpose controller components, such as motors and microcomputers. With the use of 3D printers and soldering irons, the company says, materials cost only about 30,000 yen or so.

In 2013, the three men began to develop their first electronic arm prototype while they were still working for their former employers. In November of that year, they completed the first model, called handiii. It was the international runner-up for the 2013 James Dyson Award, generating a great deal of international attention.

Having grown more confident about their product concept, they decided to set up a start-up in 2014 and came up with an improved version, the handiii Coyote, in November that year. In April this year, the company unveiled its latest electrical arm, the HACKberry.

All these interesting names, exiii said, are based on the concept of marketing its prosthetic arms in the same way that sporting goods manufacturers sell their sneakers. The idea is to offer electronic arms with various designs so that individual wearers can choose one to their own liking. In other words, the company seeks to develop electronic arms that are fun to wear.

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