Humanos 3D Foundation Literally “Giving A Hand” To Deserving Colombians In Need Of Advanced Prosthetics
In 2017, An Australian businessman arrived in Colombia with the idea of experimenting with 3D printing, testing the Colombian market readiness for such an advanced product. Four years later, Adam Armfield is still here, still involved in 3D Printing, but in a way he didn’t envision. Now the Humanos 3D Foundation he established is busy providing advanced functional prosthetics to Colombians across the country; many victims of violence, others overcoming congenital medical issues or accidents.
Humanos 3D Foundation partners with local institutions like hospital operator San Vicente Fundacion, the University of Antioquia, and Medellín’s tech accelerator, Ruta-N. Just as importantly, the work is made possible financially and logistically by the Viva Air Foundation, Australian Embassy, and the Toucan Spanish School, among others. (If you would like to support the foundation or get involved, click here)
Recently, Viva Air flew the Humanos 3D Foundation team to Colombia’s Caribbean region to fit 25 youth with new, custom themed prosthetics in Valledupar, but they hope to fabricate and donate at least 100 this year. Finance Colombia’s executive editor Loren Moss paid a visit to The Humanos 3D Foundation’s Medellín headquarters to learn more about this innovative nonprofit from founder Adam Armfield (above).
Finance Colombia: So tell us how you first ended up in Medellin.
Adam Armfield: So I’m Australian and I worked in the corporate health industry for many years, in both London and Sydney. I arrived in Colombia about seven years ago. I wanted a break from the corporate world, and so I decided to come to Medellin to take six months off to see what I could do. I didn’t really have any plans so I put the backpack on the back and came over just to explore the city and learn some Spanish, basically, and after six months I decided to stay.
Not long after that, I had to think about a business idea, what I wanted to do. I became very interested in 3D printing, and so I went to New York for a five day conference where I found people who were starting this project of building hands. That’s a great way to learn about 3D printing while I set up the business, and so I came back to Medellin with a 3D printer and I just started making these hands; not for anyone, but just to see if I could do it.
When I made one or two of these, I opened the business up and about six months later, someone from a local science club heard that I had a 3D business and I’d been making these hands, and they had a student within the science club, who went to work with me to learn about 3D printing, but also to deliver one of these hands to a young guy, and so we delivered the hand. From that point on we started to get more people…but I was running the business at the time.
Finance Colombia: What was the business?
Adam Armfield: So the business was just a 3D printing shop. 3D printing services and buying and selling, the consumables and the printers. The business, well it was tough for me, it didn’t do well and it wasn’t going that well, and I had plenty of capacity on the 3D printers, and so we had the students and we also were getting calls on, “I need a new arm.” Well, why don’t we do this on a Thursday night or Saturday mornings? We can just do a part-time sort of social project within the business, and we had spare capacity, and so we started like that.
Then I received a call from someone who heard about our work from England and they said, “well, I want to come and work with you, and I want to volunteer.” (I asked) “I want to know how many days you want to come?” She said “I want to do six months with you.” And I was like I’m not sure if I’m going to be here in six months!”
She came over and said “Look, we want to raise some money for this, you can pay for the materials, you can pay for the space, but as a business you can’t accept donations.” So we actually decided: There’s a lot more interest and energy around this project. Let’s set it up as its own Not-for-profit.” So back in 2017 we established as an official NGO within Medellin, and now 90% of my work is in the foundation. I still have the business, but it’s online mainly, doing a few signs here and there. So that’s pretty much how we started.. Once you got a little bit of publicity, more people…I mean, we’ve got great projects, we probably have more 3D printers here than many of the universities have in their entire engineering departments, and we’ve got 3D scanners so we opened the doors up to them and it’s just grown. Now we’re doing mobile clinics. This year we’re looking to deliver 120 devices. Last year we did about 60, so yes, it’s growing.
Finance Colombia: Here in Colombia, there are congenital birth defects but there are a lot of people that are victims of the conflict and, you know we have a land mine problem. Why don’t you talk a little bit about the people that you’re helping and how that came to be? The gap that you’re filling here in Colombia?
Adam Armfield: Sure. I guess as many people know, Colombia still has a huge problem with conflict and it has been a historical problem. Initially we were thinking about this project and thinking that would be something which we could tap into and we could help a lot of these people. We have helped several people who’ve been victims of conflict and mines, whether it’s been through standing on landmines. I would say most, a majority of people who stand on the landmine in general lose their legs. We have dealt with cases where people have been armed or disarming mines, so we try to run as a nonpolitical organization, not religious, so we offer help to anyone who needs it and we don’t go too much into their background.
We’ve dealt with soldiers and we’ve dealt with ex combatants. When we did have one soldier who was trying to disarm a mine and he lost both his hands and his sight when it went off in his face, this presents a new challenge for us, because how do you use a prosthetic? You don’t know what you’re picking up. So, we actually had one of the international students come over and worked with the local teams and we made a device which had a motion sensor in it, and then a motion sensor, a distance sensor, like what you’ve got in the back of your car, and so this guy would get a ‘beep beep beep to find what he’s looking for and then double his arm. The family called us about three hours after the delivery and said, please take it off him because he’s walking around the house beeping us crazy!”
And so we went to version two, where we put a vibrating motor in there, so we still had to do the sensor, but instead of beeping, it just vibrates faster when it gets close to the item. That makes sense. So, yes, that was one of the mine victims, victims of conflict, more of the victims of conflict to people who’ve had their limbs chopped off, so they’ve literally been there when their towns have been attacked and they’ll take off the both or one arm off of a machete and in many cases they’d also cut their throat or hit him in the back of her head to make sure the job’s done. We’ve received a few of those, not a huge amount, but two or three of those cases.
They’ve usually waited 15 or 20 years to receive the help from the government. They tell stories about discrimination when they go into a hospital, they’ll be put in the system and then someone in the administration won’t let them continue because they will say “they’re the rats” or “they don’t deserve help from the rest of us,” etcetera, etcetera, and so they’ll get thrown out of the health system and never get an arm. So we can step in and help people in those lines as well.
Finance Colombia: Obviously there’s direct help that you’re offering to victims of violence or conflict, but another thing that you’re doing that is very interesting is you’re contributing to the open-source community. Tell us about that, because a lot of the design that you’re making, you are also sharing with the world.
Adam Armfield: Sure, everything we do here is open source. Any of the designers, anyone, any of the volunteers who come from the university, we make it very clear that we’re going to copy, share, mutate, improve, do whatever we want to do to the designs, and a lot of designs that we actually work with have come from other communities around the world who are working with similar projects. So not only do we generate our own new designs, but we also hack some of the designs that exist, and then we rerelease those designs to the world. So open source basically means there’s no license on it, they’re completely sharable, and we feel this has a really big impact in what we’re doing.
Anyone can use our designs, and yes, we are using them here in Colombia, but our designs are now being used all over the world, from the United States to England, to Africa. With this type of technology, we’re changing our designs every couple of weeks. Every few months we get some good designs that we use, but we’re always personalizing and changing, and so for a bureaucracy like Colombia, where you have INVIMA (health & medical device and product regulatory agency), but in a design type of environment, you’d need to submit one design and wait two years to get approval, and then you want to change a finger when it is designed, and you’ve got another two years to wait
It’s a long process. It takes up to two years. There’s another company here in Medellin, which has gone down that path using 3D printing too, but they don’t donate the design, they sell them for up to $5,000 for a robotic arm, but we’re friends with them and we’ve worked together, we’ve taught them about the process and for us, it’s just not worth it, there’s a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of things which inhibit the innovation and the creativity of the team, and so what we prefer to do is rather than go down the sales route, we keep it all open source, and we donate them all as experimental devices. This project hasn’t faced any problems over the last three or four years, they have similar projects in the United States and England, have similar regulatory structures, but as long as we’re not selling them and commercializing them, and we include a disclaimer that these are experimental devices, we’re usually pretty good.
Finance Colombia: You know, I know a company in the States, Sprintray, that is now 3D printing teeth, dentures, or that kind of thing, so I would imagine that you guys here, have having a central office in metro Medellin, but I imagine that long-term, there’s a benefit because the 3D printing technology…Colombia has decent infrastructure where you can get out to the remote areas pretty easily and get into the city if you need to, but I imagine that if I look at other places in the world or areas of conflict or areas where they don’t have the infrastructure that we have here, by using 3D printing technology, you can remotely take this, probably either transport it via air or stick it all in the back of a van and go somewhere and actually do things right there.
Adam Armfield: You sure can, and this has already been done. We’re part of a global network called Enable, a kind of non-centralized global distribution of 3D printers. It could be someone who’s just doing a college project, it could be someone like us, who set up their own not-for-profit, but basically, it’s a support network where we provide designs, and we share knowledge. One of the groups, actually raised money to go to Africa, took a 3D printer and they found an area of high need, and then they went over and taught the local community, with the 3D printer, how to use this technology. They made some (prosthetics) while they’re there. These (printers) weigh about ten to fifteen kilos, and then when they leave Africa, then installed the knowledge remains there.
Finance Colombia: Another thing is that you have an active internship program, and that’s another benefit because you have students here in Colombia, students here in Medellin that are studying things like bioengineering, medical engineering, and those types of fields. I see that you have a lot of students and former students that are getting hands on experience, and then you’ve also mentioned that you’ve had interns come internationally. So why don’t you talk about not just the international ones and the opportunity that they’ve been able to gain, but let’s talk about the local students and, forgive the pun, the hands-on experience they gain.
Adam Armfield: As you mentioned previously, we had a lot of international students just from word of mouth and then they’d come over and help us, anywhere from two weeks to six months. We always had Colombian volunteers as well, but it was always maybe a 50-50 mix. When the pandemic arrived, we lost pretty much all the international students and we had to change our funding methods. We started to expand our programs within the universities, and so now, pretty much everybody who works with us are Colombian. We work with a range of universities here and we offer them internships and volunteer placements, so the internships are six months. The interns are usually in their final semester or final year of bioengineering.
We put them through paces. They have to pass a test because we’re getting a lot of applicants now, and so we will actually (test) them: Do they know basic programming? Have they got 3D printing or 3D design skills? So these guys arrive, they’ve got good skills which contribute to our organization. They’ve learned, but now they can actually put it into practice, so the idea is not only will they work on the current designs and help with distributing and making the hands and the arms to the people who need them now from our list, but we’ll organize one specific project for them each to have while they’re here.
For example, Sara has been doing the development of the fingers and the splints, these new guys here will be working on new versions of robotic arms as well, as some other projects, just quickly (to Sara), tell me about the projects that you’ll be developing this year.
Sara Patiño: We are going to develop a transhumeral prosthesis and our intention is to integrate it specifically to the person who requires it. For example, if the person needs it to practice a sport, how can we help them so that they can practice sport with the prosthesis? For instance, we are going to work with a girl so that mobility can be facilitated with the prosthesis, or a person who is going to drive, we are going to work the same part of the prosthesis so that she can drive comfortably.
Adam Armfield: Thank you very much. So generally, the students will come in, we get hundreds of cases and we have to turn some of them down because they don’t fit into the standard designs, so they’re transfemoral above the elbow, or, they just have a badly mutilated hand, which doesn’t fit into the glove, so we’ve had to turn a lot of these cases away with one look. We only focused on the easy cases, we’re trying to get the low hanging fruit that can serve as many people as possible. But now, because we have this expanded program with the universities, when one of these guys come in, we can say, “look, here’s the caseload, choose some cases which we can help,” and so they’ll do the transfemoral, they’ll do a case here with a little girl who maybe has just a one finger or the robotics, so the idea is not only can we then generate new devices, which all become open source, and we publish those on our website that can be used around the world, but we then have a whole range of designs.
So we won’t have to deny as many people in the future because there’s only a certain number of amputations, of cases that you can have, and we’re also giving these guys an opportunity to apply the design skills, design thinking, and when they leave here, the idea is obviously if they do well here, we’re going to give them a good reference. They’re going to have some good work experience behind them, and they can go out and do this either professionally, in a commercial environment or working in some type of not-for-profit.
Finance Colombia: I would imagine that the costs add up, so how do you meet the funding challenges? There are some people in Colombia that have the means to pay for things, but I imagine a lot of people, especially in rural areas don’t, so you end up I would imagine, donating a lot of the work, if not most or almost all of it. So tell me about the funding model.
Adam Armfield: So, the costs do add up as you mentioned, because not only do we have to pay the normal cost of rent, we do have three employees, the rest are volunteers. We have probably about 15 volunteers, but we have the cost of materials, the cost of the 3D printers, the cost of maintenance, but one of the other costs, which was becoming a little bit unmanageable for us for a while, was the cost of people having to visit us. A lot of these people as you mentioned, live in rural areas. They live on the other side of Colombia. We have people who will travel 15 hours to see us. They would hop on a bus, or two buses traveling from all parts of Colombia to get here, whether from the south, the east, anywhere, for them to come across, they’re paying at least a hundred thousand pesos one way at least, and then they’re having to pay for a night of accommodation here just the come and take the measurements, and they’ve got to do it again in a month’s time to come and pick the prosthetic up.
Now, if that person is a child, you can double that cost because there is a parent that has to come, so now you’re looking at close to 1.5 to double just on their travel expenses. That’s not possible for most families in Colombia. And so all these costs that come up, we were paying for them. 90% or 95% of our money was through the volunteers that came, international volunteers, they would come over and make their own donation, or they’d set up crowdfunding campaigns. Every year we would run two, maybe three crowdfunding campaigns with a new set of volunteers, because if you try to crowd fund as an organization, you’re lucky if you can do that once a year, people don’t do that. But if you get fresh volunteers, fresh networks in, and people who bring their own network of people, and then they donate…so that’s how we were running, but as we started to get more cases in, we had more and more costs coming up that still wasn’t viable.
So that’s when we met with Viva Air and (Executive Chairman) Declan asked “how can we help more people?” Those are the kind of thoughts that he had, and I said, “look, mobile clinics would help us reduce costs, we could go out to them. We could do 20 people in a space of a couple of days, rather than paying 20 people, one or two journeys to come and visit us, you know what I mean?” So we can do these for a tenth of the cost of by going out there.
So to reduce these costs, instead of inviting 20 people a year to come visit us, we can go and see a town…We’ve developed training materials. We had a professional video crew who volunteered their time to develop YouTube videos, and professional documentation that we’ve done, and so we do some online training with, local, medical providers, so we’ll contact the local department and the secretary of health within regions that we think are high conflict or need help now; or they will contact us after they’ve heard about it. We’ll ask them to dedicate one or two members of staff to this project, and it doesn’t have to be a full-time, it could be a couple hours a week, but someone that we can liaise with on the ground. We train them up, how to take the measurements, they send all the official documents, all the measurements and the patient details to us. he team of interns and volunteers will then spend the next couple of weeks making (the devices).
We’re trying to deliver 10 clinics this year. We got thrown down a little bit with the (COVID) travel restrictions, but we’re on track, so the idea is to deliver 10 clinics with 120 arms or devices this year. In the end, the sponsor is the one who invested in us to do it all these mobile clinics.
Finance Colombia: Very impressive. So we touched briefly on Declan Ryan and the Viva Air foundation. So, Viva Air foundation is a major benefactor. So, so if you can touch a little bit on how that happened.
Adam Armfield: Sure. Viva Air has been a huge lifeline. This project was always running sort of month-to-month budget and these guys, when we lost our international volunteers, I thought we were done for! Because to 90% to 95% of our funding came through that. So one of our volunteers was English, it just so happened he was someone who the British embassy needed to take care of, and so I got to become good friends with one of the staff at the embassy. So that staff member helped us here and there throughout the first two years through, and then at the end of 2019 he approached me and said “hey, would you like some corporate sponsors?, I know someone within Viva Air, who could potentially help you,” and so they sent down the head of Viva Air Foundation, Monica Gil. Monica runs the foundation with some of the other ladies and so they came in and we had been applying for grants by this stage for a good year or two sending them away to whatever organization, everyone, and then long processes, you very rarely hear back.
But Viva Air came in and said, “how much do you need?” I said, this is what we need to finish the year. Three days later, they said “approved, we’ll have the money you can next week,” so they believe in what we are doing. We are in need of more sponsors still, we’ve recently got a grant from the Swiss government, we’re still in need of further funding to continue to grow and to meet our budgets going forward. So yes, Viva came in, they’ve helped us not only with the financing side of things, but Natalia (from the Viva Air Foundation) is now working with us to—as a volunteer—to design our financial projections, to make sure we’ve got everything in order as far as how much money we need, what what’s our current financial status.
So, you know, being in this organization, we take anyone as volunteers because everyone has something to offer. We’ve had, everyone from advanced electronics designers to ex corporates from Ireland to come in and tell us: “I’ve got no skills, what can I do for this?” Of course you can get painting, everyone’s got a skill they can offer, so not only can the organizations help us financially, but if they have people who want to help us with our systems or with our designs or lift things along those lines, we want to work with them as well.
Finance Colombia: Really cool story. Does the Australian embassy know about you? I think Erika Thompson is the new ambassador.
Adam Armfield: She’s great, she came to visit us. She took over from Sophie Davies. The Australian embassy heard about the work we were doing, and we applied for a direct access funding program back when Sophie was ambassador. So we’ve got about $10,000 or $20,000 from the embassy to help us, which was a great help. That actually helped us upgrade the installations to expand the amount of people we are helping.
I found we worked our guts off for like two or three years scraping and scraping, and then when there was enough momentum behind us, the embassy arrived within about a week or two, and Viva Air arrived, and so we’re going, “this is great!” We got the new ambassador, she said: “I’ve heard about your work. Can I come and visit?” And she goes, “look, we want to continue to support you,” so we just received a little bit more support from the Australian government this year as well.”
So Viva and the Australian government have pretty much brought us through to this point, and we did a crowdfunding campaign at the end of last year. We tried to do one in Colombia this year, but everyone’s tight for money. You know what I mean? To be in this type of situation where unemployment’s high, people are losing their jobs. It’s a little bit tougher to do the crowdfunding, so we’re really relying on the corporate sponsors and, and the government sponsors this year, and who knows what’s going to happen next year? Hopefully we’ll keep on growing in that direction.
You know, we’re doing a great thing here in Colombian society, not only for the people that we’re helping, but from the educational side of things, for offering opportunities to these students. It’s something that doesn’t exist in this area, and so I think if people want to get involved with us, I think that there’s a lot of businesses in Colombia, hopefully that can get involved. Obviously we accept anyone from any country, but if Colombians want to get involved, that would be great because I’m the only gringo here! Before there were more, but this is a Colombian team, and to invest in their own people through education, health, it’s something that would reflect really well within their company. We need more Colombian companies involved, but yes, as I said, we welcome multinationals as well.
Finance Colombia: One of the things that I like is that there are a lot of charities out there that are saying: “give us money” and they show you some picture of some starving kid or something like that, but you are not selling misery, but you are taking these people and giving them prosthetics and things that improve their quality of life, and the story is a positive story rather than a negative story.
Adam Armfield: It’s extremely positive. I mean, these devices, they really change the script of how someone feels about themselves. Yes, they have functionality that people can now pick up a bottle again, people can now use utensils again, or write again or paint again. One of the stories is a guy who was donated of the (standard prosthetics) from the health system that only had three forks (instead of a hand) and these kids wouldn’t go near him because they saw him as a monster. When he got one of (ours), he came back a couple of weeks later, he was in tears, he said “because all my kids were hugging me again” because it’s like a normal working arm, you know?
We have other kids who are arriving at school, they’ve been teased the whole time for not having an arm, not having a hand. Now they go back to school, and they’ve got a an Iron Man or Captain America hand or something like that, and all the kids are like, “wow, this is so cool!” and so the prosthetic or their disability becomes something cool and it really changes the script! We hope that the effect on their self-esteem is going to carry through into their education into their social life and eventually into their later work life. So we’re hoping this and obviously these are very long-term studies, we can’t provide data on that, but it’s obvious withy the smiles on these kids, on their faces, and we’re hoping that it has an impact.