Engineer in Bolivia makes prosthetics for the poor, inspires youth in STEM

Our first patient, Richard Vargas, arrived with two forearm amputations. We labored to find a solution. The moment we placed the prosthetics on him, magic filled the air. Suddenly you did not see a person missing parts of his body, you saw someone with the potential to be mentally and physically well.

  • 2 years ago
  • June 9, 2022
6 min read
Don Felipe, a man from a province very far from La Paz, arrives to receive a prosthetic from Roly Mamani Don Felipe, a man from a province very far from La Paz, arrives to receive a prosthetic from Roly Mamani | Photo courtesy of Roly Mamani
Roly Mamani
Interview Subject
Roly Mamani is a Bolivian engineer who studied Electronic Engineering with a specialty in Electromedicine. He currently works in a laboratory called Robotics Creators in Achocalla, half an hour from La Paz, in which he develops all the technology to make prostheses.

Thanks to his long work and tests, he has managed to help 200 families. His patients include adults, senior citizens, children, and even pets.
Background Information
According to data from the Pan American Health Organization, more than 9 percent of the Bolivian population suffers from a disability. Of which, the majority are produced by injuries from traffic and work accidents.

According to Roly Mamani, implementing 3D printing is a great alternative to traditional prosthetics since one of the main problems in Latin American countries is that they do not have companies that manufacture top-quality raw materials to generate products with greater guarantees and resistance than abroad.

ACHOCALLA, Bolivia ꟷ As a child, I loved creating new things and dreamed of making a robot. In college, I studied electronics and robotics. Like any dreamer, I created prototypes, participated in competitions, and built animatronics. Building and competing proved fun and became a beautiful part of my life but I wondered why it mattered if I did not apply this knowledge to something productive.

Motivated by the values and empathy my parents taught me, I began developing health related technology. My work could help society and those with disabilities like loss of arms, forearms, fingers, or lack of mobility in upper limbs.

From 2016 through 2018, I began developing solutions for people with disabilities based on 4.0 technologies such as 3D printing. My team and I have helped around 200 families with our low-cost solutions.

Poor people missing limbs in Bolivia lack prosthetics

Prostheses are complicated to develop and as a result, prove very expensive. I refused to feel helpless, having seen so many people in my country with these issues. I wondered why the problem became so prevalent. Often those with limited resources experience greater exposure to danger like losing a limb in an accident, operating machinery, or mishandling explosives. The problem exacerbates because they cannot afford the high price of a prosthetic.

With very little experience, resources, or knowledge, we managed to make our first solutions using revolutionary 3D printing technology, starting with simple designs for a forearm or forceps to handle objects. With acceptable results, the people came, looking for help. Little by little, we learned about each patient and their experiences.

Prosthetic prototype allows patient to hold a cookie, open a car door

I had to take a risk to live a life I could be passionate about – a passion that provided the strength to persevere. So, I left my job in car electronics and a fixed schedule and salary. It was the right decision.

Our first patient, Richard Vargas, arrived with two forearm amputations. For three to four months, we labored to find a solution. Despite a college education, I self-taught 3D design, programming and printing, and related electronics. The combination of disciplines ensured we would achieve the necessary result for Richard.

The moment we placed the prosthetics on him, magic filled the air. Suddenly you did not see a person missing parts of his body, you saw someone with the potential to be mentally and physically well. It felt unreal to see a man missing limbs where a hand or arm should be, but when we put the two forearms on him, he became symmetrical.

His self-esteem improved because he felt more aesthetically pleasing. He could suddenly, easily grab things. Richard did not care it was a prototype. He grabbed a cookie and reached to open a car door. A great feeling entered each of us, knowing we found the right track. It is the patients who motivate you to keep improving.

3D technology gives children, animals, and the elderly new limbs

My patients, which now include humans and pets, teach me. Even animals need a second chance. They are unique in that they don’t feel disabled if you offer them love and attention.

So many humans who live in an optimal state complain about many things. Working with my patients, I learned to value my fingers and my hands because they are the expression of my soul.

A greeting and a hug bring emotion by expressing through your hands what your brain is thinking and feeling. Patients come to the lab missing all four limbs. Without legs and hands, they seek solutions, yet they come in with huge smiles on their faces.

They show us that life, despite its challenges, goes on. We gain great satisfaction by adding to those smiles and decreasing helplessness. As people, we too often turn our eyes to our own lives when we could do something positive. Technology has become my ally to resist feeling impotent in the face of these challenges.

The solutions may be optimal or minimally acceptable, but either way, they give me peace. I see children and elderly people gain skills; and blind people play guitar. It may not be much, but change must start somewhere.

Adjusting business models for prosthetics in Bolivia and inspiring youth in STEM

We do this work with help. For wealthy people who can afford a prosthesis, they pay for materials and we provide the labor. The money made allows us to sponsor those who appear at our door from distant provinces with no resources.

We constantly battle lack of supply and high expense for gears, micro gears, aluminum, and aluminum composite, always seeking affordable solutions for low-income people.

Like so many companies, the COVID-19 Pandemic delayed projects and research and development, so we continually reinvent ourselves – offering supplies for health personnel and biosafety materials for doctors. This allows us to stay afloat.

We dream of completing a full-scale rehabilitation center for lower and upper extremities, making exoskeletons for people in wheelchairs, and prosthetics for those who cannot move their arms.

At the same time, we await the opening of the first-ever robot museum in La Paz where young people can visit and be encouraged to socialize. Our goal is to inspire more youth to choose a career in the field and provide an environment to show them our work.

If we can open young minds to the possibilities, they will become the future creators of solutions for those in need in Bolivia.

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