The Art and Science of Changing Lives
Limbitless Solutions builds self-confidence and independence in kids with limb differences.
As a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the University of Central Florida (UCF), Albert Manero always wanted to use his engineering skills to change the world. One morning in 2013, he caught a glimpse of how he might do it.
“I heard a radio interview with a man who developed the first 3D-printed mechanical hand, shared his design, and essentially started a global movement of makers,” Manero says. “I was determined to help by bringing whatever skills and lab resources I could to the project.”
It wasn’t long before a family in Orlando reached out to Manero with a slightly modified request — something he and his fellow classmates hadn’t tried before. “They asked if we could build a bionic arm for their six-year-old son,” he says. “Their request was a little intimidating and also exciting. We knew if we could assemble the right team of engineers and designers that we could do it. Within eight weeks, we had a prototype, and that’s when Limbitless Solutions was born.”
Limbitless Solutions finds its inspiration
Manero was soon consumed with the project. Juggling classes and international research, he and his fellow students established a nonprofit organization on the UCF campus. Their focus: making low-cost, lightweight, personalized bionic arms at no cost to families. Making the limbs financially accessible is key. A bionic limb can traditionally cost as much as $50,000 — something that is unaffordable for many families, especially since a bionic limb requires replacement every few years as a child grows.
Coming up with the mission was a great start, but the real inspiration came when they looked at the problem through the eyes of children with limb differences. Even when kids can get traditional prosthetics or bionic limbs, they may be embarrassed to wear them or simply have a hard time seeing the device as an integrated part of themselves.
“Kids with limb differences often face challenges. Our mistake was to assume they just want to blend in and feel normal,” says Manero, now president of Limbitless. “When we started talking with them, we realized that these kids want to be seen and celebrated for who they are — superheroes."
That insight made Limbitless what it is today. The team has grown from its initial group of engineers to include artists, designers, developers, and around 25 student interns each semester from across engineering, marketing, and arts disciplines at UCF. The result is a blend of science and creativity that is evident in every bionic arm the organization develops.
Personal designs empower kids to express themselves
Kids are especially excited about the fact that each arm is custom-designed to reflect their unique personality. They get to collaborate with students from the UCF School of Visual Arts and Design to create personalized outer sleeves using creative tools such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. Then, the Limbitless art and painting team uses Photoshop, Illustrator, Dimension, and Substance Painter, along with professional airbrushing equipment, to give each bionic arm its unique character.
Together, they’ve designed arms that look like everything from a bouquet of flowers to the arm of Iron Man. This creative expression is crucial for creating a sense of ownership, empowerment, and confidence in each and every child.
Annika Emmert, 15, one of Limbitless’s bionic kids, was 10 when she received her first arm. “I can’t even begin to explain the opportunities I’ve had since meeting the amazing people from Limbitless,” Emmert says. “The fact tht I got to design my own bionic arm makes me feel good about wearing it. It has changed my life for the better."
That blend of creativity and engineering comes through in everything Limbitless does, including the apps it develops. Kids learn how to control their new arms by playing Limbitless Runner and Limbitless Adventure — games built using Adobe XD, Mixamo, Fuse, Photoshop, Illustrator, and Animate. These fun, immersive games help limb recipients get comfortable with flexing their muscles to produce movements and gestures. That training is key to faster adoption. Testing the effectiveness of the training games in relation to adoption of the arms has been an integral part of their first clinical trial. Preliminary testing shows positive results for use of training games to accelerate the ability to use the bionic arm.
For families, there’s an app for bionic arm calibration, troubleshooting, and family support chat. The organization has even developed an app and a website portal that allows families to customize their bionic designs online. Both were designed and prototyped in Adobe XD.
Visual storytelling changes the conversation around limb differences
Limbitless is more than halfway through the clinical trials on its bionic arms. Once complete, FDA certification will enable the prosthetics to be covered by insurance, thereby making the arms more accessible to children with limb differences. In the meantime, the non-profit is working hard to raise awareness and attract funding. Visual storytelling is central to its efforts.
The advocacy and marketing team’s top priority is to share the Limbitless mission through the website, social media, flyers, and posters, and they rely on Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, XD, and Spark to do so. Videos on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, created using Adobe Premiere Pro, Premiere Rush, and After Effects, are particularly effective in communicating the Limbitless mission and celebrating limb recipients.
“Limbitless' sole focus is not only on the technology, such as our bionic arms, but the children using the technology, their families, their lives, and their stories,” says Mrudula Peddinti, Branding Director at Limbitless Solutions. “Creative storytelling goes beyond scientific data and statistics about a device. It adds emotional impact and the humanity behind the prosthetic. Our role is not only to develop and provide accessible technology, but also utilize the power of visuals to amplify our bionic kids' and families' voices and stories to build awareness throughout the rest of the community. This is what allows Limbitless to not only garner genuine buy-in and support of our mission, but also empower our bionic kids.”
The Limbitless bionic kids themselves are helping to raise awareness using visual storytelling. , and now they have their own comic. The Bionic Kid comic series is the brainchild of then 10-year-old Zachary Pamboukas, who received his first bionic arm in 2016, and his older brother, Christo. The two boys came up with the idea to raise money for other kids in need of bionic arms, writing the story and even helping with the illustrations. The comic is helping to change the conversation around limb differences.
“’Bionic Beginnings’ is the amazing origin story of the Bionic Kid, Zachary, a boy who confronts a bully through nonviolent means and ultimately becomes a superhero. It shows how to openly communicate about disabilities,” says Manero. “A group SVAD professors, Limbitless illustrators, and undergraduate interns sat down with Zachary and Christo to bring the story to life in Photoshop, Illustrator and Spark. We even had the boys draw some of the details to make sure the storyline and characters were just right.”
Building a STEAM-powered maker space
When Manero realized how important it was to blend art with engineering, he contacted Matt Dombrowski, assistant professor in the School of Visual Arts and Design at UCF. Dombrowski has been instrumental in pulling the thread of creativity through every team and building an academic program that’s truly “STEAM-powered.”
“The idea is to blur the lines among disciplines and show students how to work at the intersection of art and engineering,” says Dombrowski. “We believe creativity is an essential skill for everyone — which is why Adobe Creative Cloud is embedded in everything we do.”
That multidisciplinary approach is a driving force for Limbitless, and the organization will soon have an ideal space for its design-driven engineering to flourish. The non-profit plans to open a new lab on the UCF campus, partially funded by Adobe, which will increase safety, ramp up production to help kids in need, and expand the educational impact for students. This new facility will amplify production up to 10x!
The new Limbitless Learning Lab will more than triple the organization’s square footage, allowing more room for 3D printing, laser-cutting, airbrushing, and injection molding equipment. It will also include conference rooms and training areas, ideal for K–12 field trips and summer STEAM camps that teach the value of importance of creativity and expose students to the three pillars of the Limbitless mission: engineering design, artful expression, and gamified training. Limbitless has already hosted field trips for several high school classes, and the new space will allow the organization to expand the program, empowering the next generation of innovators.
Manero also wants to provide a safe space for staff and students to try new ideas and tackle new challenges as they arise, a philosophy that came into play during the COVID-19 crisis. Early in the pandemic, Limbitless quickly repurposed its manufacturing space to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) for local healthcare providers. Employing the capabilities of Adobe Creative Cloud, the team utilized Lightroom and Photoshop to process the images of the designed protective visors imprinted with the messages love, hope, compassion, and thank you — yet another sign of its emphasis on creativity and the human spirit. The organization also helped manufacture parts for one of the world’s first 3D-printed mechanical ventilators, supplementing supplies for hospitals dealing with an influx of respiratory patients.
"We're so fortunate to have the opportunity to make an impact during the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that this isn't the last challenge we're going to face,” says Manero. “We want to give students a place where they can pursue creative ideas about how to empower individuals and entire communities.”
Limbitless goes full STEAM ahead
For Manero and his team, the journey has been challenging and rewarding. The growing family of bionic kids inspires them to keep improving bionic arm technology and expand design options. More than 160 Limbitless interns have gained valuable 21st century STEAM learning skills, and many have gone on to make their mark in art, game development, software, and even accessible technology. And the future looks even better.
“Combining immense creative talent and passion with technology and engineering, we can change the world with solutions that are not only functional, but also beautiful, expressive, and empowering,” says Manero. “That’s really the heart of our mission at Limbitless.”