Violinist Sarah Valentiner, 14, smiles as she plays with a prosthetic that helps hold her bow correctly that was made by Northern Illinois University engineering student Oluseun Taiwo in the 3-D printing lab.

Young engineers propel prosthetics into the future

Image credit: Northern Illinois University

Technological advancements once consigned to the realms of science fiction are inspiring young people to engineer innovative ideas for human artificial mobility.

Canadian Adrian Anantawan was born without a right hand. When he was nine years old, in a bid to help him feel less isolated from his peers, Anantawan’s parents suggested that he learn to play a musical instrument. On deciding upon the violin, the family visited the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto – a specialist unit that adapts prosthetics to the needs of disabled children. The unit’s biomedical engineers eventually produced a customised hand (‘spatula’) made from plaster, aluminum and Velcro straps.

Now 33, Anantawan is still wearing the same spatula. He’s also become a world-class violinist – graduating from Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, earning a Masters degree from Yale and regularly performing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to his prestigious musical career Anantawan has devoted much time to helping aspiring young musicians overcome a wide range of disabilities. Applying for a grant from Yale, he assembled a team of doctors and musical experts to explore the potential of various prosthetic devices and specialist computer software. In particular the ‘Virtual Musical Instrument’ – a device that works like a motion-capture video-gaming system and turns gestures into sound. Thanks to this research paralysed former violinist Eric Wan was able to play Pachelbels ‘Canon in D during a 2011 concert with the Montreal Chamber Orchestra – guided entirely by movements of his head.

Meanwhile in the USA another aspiring one-handed violinist looks set to follow in Anantawan’s path – thanks to 3D-printing technology and the dedicated efforts of a student on Northern Illinois University’s (NIU) manufacturing engineering technology program.

Teenager Sarah Valentiner had been playing the violin for two years but found that the splint she used to hold the bow wasn't very robust and didn't give her the range of motion she needed to effectively play the instrument. Then her parents discovered e-Nable, a global network of volunteer designers who freely share 3D plans for prosthetic hands, which contacted the NIU.

The university’s manufacturing engineering technology program is smaller and more close-knit than most university engineering departments, and employs the motto ‘bridging theory with practice’ – encouraging its students to take a more personal approach to problem solving.

One of these students, 21-year-old Oluseun Taiwo, was chosen by NIU associate professor of mechanical engineering and mentor Federico Sciammarella to create a lightweight nylon and plastic prosthetic hand from a 3D printer for Valentiner. With the course motto in mind, Taiwo spent three months this summer working directly with the teenage violinist.

“One of the many problems that needed solving was making it easy for a 14-year-old girl with one hand to set up her prosthetic,” explains Taiwo. “Surprisingly not all prosthetics are designed with that in mind.”

“Weight distribution was another big one. When a two-handed person holds a bow they place different force points on it while playing to ensure comfort and accuracy. Obviously Sarah cannot do this, so I had to work hard with her on what areas needed more material to ensure she felt in control of the bow, and which needed less so she could hit different bow positions with speed and elegance.”

Aesthetics was another task the couple laboured over.

“We wanted a functional, simple yet great-looking design that could leave room for future development,” says Taiwo. “I spent many late nights trying to nail it. I still think I can do a bit better, but I am proud with what we came out with!”

Obtaining quick and honest feedback to make problem solving easier was not the only advantage of working on a one-to-one basis.

“In addition to gaining experience to further my work in 3D printing, I now also have a much better understanding of what working with clients could look like in the future,” says Taiwo.

Taiwo is now aiming to start his own “large-scale additive manufacturing” company using 3D printing to tackle projects from prosthesis to housing crises in developing countries and within American inner cities.

“I want to continue to work on projects that will have a positive impact on people's lives and I feel a company like one I am imagining would be the best way to do that in a responsible, respectful and successful manner."

The collaboration has also produced a surprising outcome for Valentiner. Aside from boosting her confidence as a violinist she now wants to pursue a career in engineering to “make the world a better place”.

Across the pond in the UK another engineer has taken an indirect route into the world of prosthetics.

Nadine Stech studied engineering cybernetics at Germany’s University of Stuttgart and did her final year work placement at Hampshire-based prosthetics company Blatchford – during which she became fascinated by the impact that biomedical engineering can have on people’s lives.

After graduating, Stech began working at Blatchford as an electronic design engineer, which eventually led to becoming project champion and technical lead of the Linx Limb system – the first ever integrated lower limb that behaves like a human leg.

In addition to coordinating a multidisciplinary team of mechanical and electronic engineers, software developers, technicians and clinicians, Stech devised a control system that was capable of communicating with both the knee and ankle joint continuously as well as with a user interface – and created additional functions.

In June of this year the Linx Limb won the MacRobert Award – the UK’s top innovation prize presented by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

“The most exciting aspect of the role is the fact that you are at the interface of the human and the machine,” says Stech. “Effectively you create a ‘machine’ that needs to be able to respond to the movement of the human with all the unpredictability and challenges involved.”

“Moving from early prototypes to a product requires a lot of detail work, so it is very rewarding to know that the integrated lower limb has been successfully commercialised. But the best moment is when all your efforts are rewarded by positive feedback from the amputees.”

As well as pursuing a PhD in biomedical engineering at the University of Surrey in the UK, Stech is now project manager and scientific lead in user/mobility requirements, biomechanics and conceptual design in the multimillion European research program MovAiD, a project investigating the future of customised movement and assistive device provision using scanning, modelling, automated design tools and 3D printing.

Of course, entering the field of prosthetics doesn’t have to be by an ancillary route. In the UK there are now two universities that offer specific degree courses in prosthetics and orthortics – the University of Strathclyde and University of Salford.

Lydia Bowers comes from a family of engineers and after watching participants in the 2012 Paralympic Games, was naturally inspired to help people living with disabilities achieve more. Having gained and enjoyed work experience at a local hospital with prosthetic facilities, she started her degree at Salford.

“It’s not like a normal university course where you sit in large lecture theatres with loads of students – it’s relaxed, classes are small, and your lecturers are friends,” Bowers explains.

“Each year gets more in-depth, but we basically spend a few days a week learning anatomy, pathologies and biomechanics that we apply to ‘clinic and workshop’ days where we go from casting a real patient to making a full leg across a few weeks. It is very hands on right from day one,” says the now third-year student.

Bowers is passionate about her course, which includes facilities such as gait labs where students can run projects and learn more about how the prosthetic or orthotic affects gait and forces.

“In second and third year we go on placements for each discipline, and I’ve enjoyed that the most,” Bowers says.

“I got the opportunity to help a service user who had lost a lot of weight because their current leg socket was too big – by hand-casting a more modern design. I later heard that the user said it was the most comfortable leg they had ever worn. It was amazing to know how something I had done had affected someone else’s life for the better!”

On completion of her degree Bowers is planning on getting a clinical role and working her way up but would ultimately like to become involved in the Paralympics.

Stech, Bowers and Taiwo are all in agreement that passion and enthusiasm, obtaining work experience and learning people skills are key factors in terms of young people entering this field of work and engineering in general.

But Taiwo also has another tip:

“Do not be scared of failure. Some of the greatest life lessons I have learned were right after a test didnt go well, or a design I had been working on didnt function right. Failure is a part of the process and its important to learn from it.”

Further encouragement comes from Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng FRS, and Chair of Judges for the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award.

“Engineering encompasses everything from infrastructure and renewable energy to biotechnology, medical devices and smart fabrics. There are more options than ever before, and many exciting fields that should attract as many women as men to this rewarding career. Prosthetics in particular is a fascinating area.”  

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