Ben Ryan takes the word “resourceful” to an epic level. The British dad, who refers to himself as an “unlikely engineer”, has not only changed his son’s life, but is using his self-taught ingenuity to change the lives of 20 other kids with limb differences across the globe.
Young Sol Ryan made a rather dramatic entrance into the world. He was born in what his father describes as an awkward position, which caused a blood clot to form in the newborn’s left arm. According to doctors, Sol stood no chance of keeping his arm, and it was amputated before he came home from the hospital.
“He was no longer moving his left arm at all,” Ben tells Babble. “That wasn’t good enough for my son, so I decided to do something about it myself.”
That “something” involved grabbing a sponge from the kitchen and tacking it lightly around baby Sol’s left arm. Within seconds, he lifted his arm up and started banging the toys dangling from his mobile. From that day on, he was using both arms.
But Ben didn’t stop there.
He fashioned a prosthetic arm out of everyday household objects, like metal washers and even a screwdriver handle. Ben describes his experimentation as “gluing bits of plastic and tubes together” and found that the quickest and least expensive way of building a prosthetic arm was by using a 3D printer. Still, he was faced with a challenge: finding the right fit for the part of the prosthetic that hugged his son’s upper arm, at the point of amputation.
When he learned that the X-Box Connect had scanning capabilities, he used that to scan his son’s arm while he was sleeping one night. This enabled him to get a digital replica of his Sol’s exact dimensions to aid him in making a prosthetic that fit properly.
“I’d wait for him to go to sleep and Kate [Sol’s mother] would hold his arm steady and in about five minutes, I’d have a scan,” explains Ben.
Ben is currently working with about 20 other families to test out the feasibility of home scanning. These parents — people from all around the world, most of whom he’s never met face-to-face — are using an X-Box to scan their children’s limbs and send the scan to Ben, who is in turn making the prosthetic socket with a 3D printer.
He then mails the socket back to the family for a test fit and when everyone is happy with that, Ben continues making the rest of the prosthetic. It’s important for the socket to fit snugly, as that is what holds the prosthetic on to the child’s limb.
Both the simplicity and the sheer tenacity of this project is astounding. Seriously — MacGyver has nothing on this guy.
Ben was motivated by the fact that children typically don’t receive a prosthetic arm until the age of 3. The prosthetics typically provided by the NHS (Britain’s health system) included a rigid hand with little to no movement that wouldn’t allow the child to grip or pick up objects.
“I wanted something very simple with no straps and no batteries, but which could be operated safely with almost no forearm or even no elbow joint at all,” Ben tells Babble. “The materials also had to be right for crawling on smooth surfaces, so I opted for rubber fingers. I can actually pick Sol up and swing him with this arm and no straps.”
Babies typically aren’t fitted with prosthetics because of the cost and because parts are required to be replaced so rapidly due to growth.
Also, the older the child at the time they receive the prosthesis, the greater the chance the child will reject it.
I know this from experience.
My son Zack, who was born missing most of his right hand, did not receive his prosthesis (also printed by a 3D printer) until he was 6. Wearing it is hit or miss, although we have some issues with fit and comfort we’re working through. That said, I believe the reason that Zack hasn’t taken to his 3D hand is largely a result of learning how to maneuver without it.
Ben’s work gives me hope.
The former psychology teacher turned engineer has a list of 160 families who have enquired about this type of hand. (Make that 161 families.)
“There has never been a better time to become an engineer,” says Ben. “If you have an idea and the motivation to do it, then you can do it. You can change the world.”
I think we can all agree that Ben Ryan is a world changer.
You can catch more of his work (and catch Sol in action) over on Instagram, where Ben shares updates under the handle @benryan_ambionics.