A maker and X Games champion team up to help an eight-year-old boy born without a hand get a grip on his dream of becoming a BMX freestyle bike rider.
More than anything in the world Jimmy Wilson loves BMX biking, but the absence of fingers on his left hand kept him from the thrill of participating in the daredevil sport. An eclectic mix of 3D printed technology and creative personalities came together to make Jimmy’s dream come true.
Eight-year-old Jimmy never let his physical limitations dent his passion for BMX, a daredevil sport that requires guts and extreme dexterity.
“I like to do jumps on my bike, but I’m not very good at that,” he said in a series of videos for Complex and Intel. “I want to try and do a 360 in the air on the half pipe.”
While Jimmy had the guts, it took human ingenuity and the help of 3D printing technology to give him the dexterity ride like a pro.
Peter Binkley was determined to help the young boy. Jimmy was from Binkley’s community and had something in common with Binkley’s son, who was born without fingers on his left hand. That’s what drove Binkley to join Enabling the Future (e-Nable), a global community of volunteers that use open-source prosthetic designs to create 3D printed hands and arms for those in need of upper limb assistive devices.
After developing prosthetics for his son, Binkley began making devices for other people. When he set out to create a prosthetic for Jimmy, Binkley had cutting-edge technology from Intel and the open-source community support. What he didn’t have was BMX expertise. That’s when he reached out to pro BMXer Jeremiah Smith, who advised Binkley on how to adapt his designs to the unique needs of BMX biking.
Smith is no stranger to what it takes to compete at the highest level, having taken home bronze in the 2013 X Games in LA. He coached Binkley on the must-have movements every BMXer must perform. Those insights helped Binkley wrap his head around the best way to design the right prosthetic for Jimmy.
“When I think about biking, I don’t really envision the kind of mobility that pro BMX biking involves,” said Binkley.
“When Jeremiah goes airborne off the half-pipe, all bets are off,” he continued. “There’s no guessing what will happen in the air or how he will land. So for a BMX riding device, I had to envision a very broad range of motion, in more directions than you might think.”
The essential connection point between a BMX rider and his bike is the handlebar. Smith said in order to perform BMX tricks, riders must master the side-to-side balance and range of motion in addition to up-and-down movements.
For Binkley, the first iteration of every design is a prototype. In this case, testing the prototype prosthetic had to be as authentically demanding as a competitive BMX ride. The final prosthetic had to enable Smith to perform 360-degree spins while maintaining a reliable grip on the handlebar.
“The device needed to connect securely to the bike using simple hardware, and the socket needed to be a secure, comfortable fit,” said Binkley.
“It also needed to move in the right directions…[and allow the rider] to work the handlebars like a pro biker,” he continued. “After imagining complicated designs with hinges and pins, I settled on a very simple, modified ball and socket joint.”
Binkley said the simplest solutions are usually the most reliable and often the most robust.
“In the end, I stripped the components down to the bare basics,” he said, which made for a design that can be easily adapted and customized for other needs.
“The socket is a personalized feature, so Jimmy’s device is just for Jimmy,” said Binkley. “But this work has the potential to impact the lives of many people around the world. That’s a big motivating factor for me.”
Binkley and his team at e-Nable are building an open library of resources for creating 3D printed prosthetics that anyone can use to their advantage. In the past three years, E-Nable has grown to 8,000 members who are interested in these kinds of projects.
For anyone with their own need or idea for a 3D prosthetic, Binkley recommends exploring designs on enablingthefuture.org. Since every person is different, learning how to edit 3D design files gives tinkerers the ability to customize existing designs.
By helping develop a custom design for Jimmy, Smith discovered that his sport has a lot in common with the maker movement.
“I’ve stuck with BMX for so long because you can be yourself,” said Smith. “It’s all about trial and error and just going for it. It’s huge to know how to fall, and the not knowing part is the scariest part of anything you do in your life.”
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