Bionic Beer Builds Bionic Arms

Brewing any beer is, to all intents and purposes, a manufacturing pursuit designed to bring joy to consumers. But Ocean Reach’s latest release shows how it can be so much more.

This weekend sees the Phillip Island brewery release Bionic Beer, a West Coast IPA from which all profits will be donated to another business on the island, Free 3D Hands.

The not-for-profit organisation uses 3D printers to produce hands and other assistive devices for people across the world – and the charity's story is mighty impressive too. It can be traced back to 2014, when Toyota announced it was to wind up its manufacturing operation in Australia. The news left engineer Mat Bowtell unsure of his future once his redundancy came through, although he was confident in one regard: he wanted to do something good. 

“I just wanted to keep in a positive mindset during that whole close down of the auto industry,” he says.

The impending closure saw him put his mind to helping an Australian kid: using freely available designs to manufacture a hand that looked like that of Avengers superhero Iron Man.

“My initial goal was to make one hand for one kid,” Mat says.

“It was quite a simple, open source design, and I thought there was some room for improvement as an engineer. So I wanted to come up with something that was more functional and cooler."

Starting with a single 3D printer in his lounge room, Mat was soon making more and more hands alongside similar products, later expanding to three printers on a kitchen table, then six in a spare room. Today, his business operates around 40 machines in their warehouse in the Phillip Island suburb of Newhaven, and while they send those hands to countries across the world, as an open-source operation anyone can download Mat’s designs and print their own. 

It's a venture that saw Mat awarded Australian of the Year – VIC Local Hero in 2018, and honoured by the Queen the following year too.

Mat says he’s driven by a goal to make assisted devices far more accessible to those who need them, with Free 3D Hands printing and posting their products for free.

“It’s all kinds of things,” he says. “Individual fingers for people who have lost them in accidents to hands for kids born without them so they can hold a skipping rope or play a piano.”

For Mat and the team at Free 3D Hands, the current design focus has been on developing a low cost bionic arm; at present, he says available devices are prohibitively expensive.

“We’re in the trial phase at the moment of a prototype,” he says. “It’s the equivalent of $40,000 to $60,000 an arm and it currently costs about $27 to manufacture.”

 

 

The team has been working on creating the assistive device as a means to help people better manage their own mobility. Technologically speaking, it’s a little more advanced than their other products, using advanced code to respond to muscle movements in the arm, a feature which provides the user with a range of different functions.

“It’s a massive step up and it has massive potential,” Mat says. “We’re really starting to connect and collaborate with some really awesome people from around the world who are interested.

“You can put a sensor on the arm to calibrate it so it can read the signals in your arm and the settings in the fingers to open and close, and we’ve got different grip patterns.”

Similar products on the market have an entry level cost of around $28,500, which puts them out of reach for many, especially kids.  

“They can outgrow them in months, not years,” Mat says. “The major gap to people being able to get what they need is the cost.”

As a registered charity, Mat and his team rely on donations, which is why Ocean Reach are collaborating with them on Bionic Beer.

“They’re supporting us with developing this bionic arm and making sure we can pay the bills and keep going," he says.

“We’re just really fortunate that we can do that through the kindness of the community in Australia and companies like Ocean Reach who just reached out to us – mind the pun.”

For Simon Bismire, director and head brewer at Ocean Reach, providing support for the project is something they’d wanted to do for years. After enjoying a beer with Mat in their Cowes taproom some time ago, he wanted to find a way they could contribute, but at the time felt they were too small to make a difference.  

“Once you get into his story you start to really see the impact he’s having on people’s lives,” Simon says. “We weren’t really in the position to do anything because we were so young and couldn’t commit a whole tank.”

 

Mat and Simon, who it's safe to say are pretty stoked with the support their collab has received from the wider beer industry.

 

Suppliers and others in the drinks industry have been quick to lend their support, including Bluestone Yeast, Craft Instinct, Totem Marketing, Onpack, Cryer Malt and Yakima Chief Hops.

“Everyone jumped on board, we’ve had amazing support,” Simon says. “So I think we’re really going to make a big impact.”

The beer itself features significant input from Mat too. He chose the hops – Simcoe, Centennial and Mosaic – and Bionic Beer has been brewed to 6.25 percent ABV because six, two and five are his lucky numbers.

As for the choice of style, well, that made a lot of sense, as Mat explains. "I said, 'Since this is going to support us with the development of the bionic arm, I want something that will punch you in the face'."

For Simon and the team at Ocean Reach, they’re keen to bring the beer back in the future – and equally keen for people to know that buying the beer isn’t the only way to support Free 3D Hands.

“We want to do this yearly; that money is going to run out and they’ll need more,” he says. “It doesn’t have to stop here. Buying the beer is the first step but there’s a QR code on the can so you can give more money and we really encourage everyone to do that.”

Simon’s also excited by fact it’s a collaboration between two local businesses; initially, he'd been surprised to learn the extent of Free 3D Hands' operation.

“There’s more than the penguins down here,” he says. “There’s a lot of businesses down here doing amazing stuff, and to be able to paint the picture of Phillip Island in a different way is really special.”  


Bionic Beer's launch coincides with an open day at Free 3D Hands in Newhaven on Sunday, March 20. The event includes live music, a sausage sizzle and demonstrations. You can register your attendance here.

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