Many student organizations and clubs try to offer a helping hand, but Illini Prosthetic Technologies provides entire arms.
Jonathan Naber, left, and Adam Booher fit an amputee patient with one of the three prosthetics prototypes the team tested on a trip to Guatemala in July.
Photo courtesy Jonathan Naber
The six Illinois engineering undergraduates of IPT were brought together by their goal of providing efficient, adjustable and affordable prosthetic arms for patients in developing countries, where 80 percent of the word's amputees live but access to health care is limited. Most of the focus in low-cost prosthetics has been in artificial legs, leaving a void in technology for artificial arms in areas where loss from disease, industrial accidents, land mines and violence are common.
"I came into the UI thinking that prosthetics would be a great way to use engineering skills in a way that's very helpful to a lot of people," said engineering mechanics senior Adam Booher, of Springfield, Ill., the team's director of engineering.
IPT formed in 2008 when team president Jonathan Naber, now a senior in materials science and engineering, brought together several friends who shared an interest in prosthetic devices.
"I have experience in working with people with disabilities in my family and friends, and I've always wanted to be an inventor and create technology that helped people," said Naber, of Waterloo, Ill. "All of that culminated in this idea: What if we built prosthetic arms for people in developing countries?"
Since that initial idea two years ago, the team has developed three prototypes of fittings for below-the-elbow amputations. One is designed to be modular and lightweight, one is more rugged for lifting and other labor tasks, and one is dynamically adjustable so patients can tweak the fit themselves. The IPT devices serve as a segue way between the patient's remaining arm and a terminal device such as a hook.
Equipment in the Ford Concurrent Design and Manufacture Lab on campus allowed team members to rapidly produce plastic prototypes, including fingers for a patient in Ecuador. Local machine shops assisted them in producing metal devices for field testing.
In July 2010, four team members traveled to a clinic in Guatemala to field test their designs in partnership with the Range of Motion Project, a clinic started by UI alumnus David Kruppa. The 10-day trip provided IPT members their first hands-on clinical experience and the first real tests of their designs.
"It was the culmination of a long and intense product-development process for us," Naber said. "This was the first time that we'd actually gotten to interact with and test-fit arms to amputees in the developing world, which was a huge moment for our organization. It really propelled us closer to our goal of eventually producing these arms and disseminating them."
Many patients traveled great distances to test the arms, even knowing they would not get to keep the prostheses. The team worked with patients ranging from a 7-year-old girl who had just lost her arm in a truck accident to a 43-year-old man who had lost his arm to a machete attack.
"There was a huge diversity in the patients. We saw a wide variety of ages, sizes, geometries, causes and living situations," Naber said. "We're trying to address all of those, or as many as we can, with one piece of technology."
The team also gathered a lot of insights from the patients, both through interacting with them and through extensive patient surveys. The team will work to incorporate feedback and ideas from the patients in their next designs. The patients' enthusiasm for the project was evident, and IPT members were encouraged and energized as they witnessed patients dressing themselves, writing their names, and tying shoes using the arms they'd designed.
"I think it really reinvigorated us to move forward, seeing the patients and seeing the need. We can talk about statistics and look at numbers or pictures, but when you get down there and actually see a little girl who doesn't have a leg, and you see that patients don't have access and can't afford things, it re-energizes you. We came back even more fired up than we were to start with," Booher said. "We saw their optimism and how much they looked forward to getting arms and how our being there gave them hope. "
Support from the university's Illinois Launch Program and winning the 2010 Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student business idea competition, a $30,000 prize, has funded IPT during its members' student years, but the team is now seeking support to continue research and development beyond graduation. They have registered IPT as a nonprofit organization so they can continue pursuing the team's vision, and are seeking more partnership opportunities with others in the field. More information on the team, its members, history, projects and support opportunities can be found on its website, www.supportipt.com.
Other team members include mechanical engineering student Luke Jungles, bioengineering student Richard Kesler, both from Freeport, Ill.; and materials science and engineering students Ehsan Noursalehi, of Naperville, Ill., and Hari Vigneswaran, of River Forest, Ill. All team activities are in addition to the students' regular course load, sometimes a challenging juggling act. But members' continuing dedication has been a key element of their rapid progress.
"The most powerful resource we have is our team," Naber said. "We're all united in the same vision, which is incredibly important, as is the fact that we all mesh together so well with different backgrounds and different interests. That is by far the biggest factor in our success."