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DIY surgery robots, the way forward?

On June 23rd we hosted the first edition of the annual Spring House Academy: a school of thought where our free-minded members explore, experiment and enjoy themselves. The second speaker at the Spring House Academy was Frank Kolkman, an experimental designer who graduated from the Royal College of Art. He noticed an increase in the costs of medical health services caused by expensive equipment. This results in less access to medical services for people who just can’t afford it. He decided to find an alternative for this inequality.


Inspired by YouTube videos showing medical hacks and people ‘operating’ on themselves (removing cystsapplying dentures), Kolkman (who has had no medical training nor experience with robotics) tried and succeeded to build a DIY surgery robot that could perform laparoscopies, or keyhole surgeries. Many hospitals already use machines like the Da Vinci robot, a multi-million dollar masterpiece of engineering that enables surgeons to operate with superhuman precision whilst keeping their human feel and expertise.

Its astronomical price, mainly produced by the 1,800+ patents that ‘protect’ the machine, is making surgery more expensive instead of making it available to more people. Kolkman decided to challenge this paradox by creating a 4,000 dollar surgery robot with parts from Alibaba and the local hardware store. With just a 3D-printer and a laser cutter he was able to build a robot that can take grapes apart and sew them back together again with thread and needle, through a keyhole. 


He says “I am not the guy to take this forward”, but he is the guy who has started a discussion with this controversial art project. How do we value our medical system, which is dictated by patents, drug producing companies and health insurance companies? How do we feel about DIY surgery, is this the way forward? At least he proved the question is not ‘can we do it?’.

Marcel Oosterwijk

Cover photo: Stuart Holt / CC BY
Article photo: Cmglee / CC BY-SA