When it comes to advanced prostheses, there are many one-size-fits-all solutions. But for people who have lost functionality due to a range of ailments with diverse presentations, an industry that designs and fabricates just one kind of prosthesis is failing to serve the needs of its market.
With Alpha Prosthetics, a team of undergraduate engineers from George Fox, that could all change. Less a prototype prosthetic and more a prototype process, the big idea out of Alpha Prosthetics is a design method that draws together engineers and people who need prosthetics, known in industry parlance as clients, to design task-specific prosthetics that solve the most everyday problems.
“We believe that there are so many other people that we can help and that engineers as a whole can help,” said Dawson Willems, an undergraduate in mechanical engineering. “Just building that bridge and connecting those people and giving engineers opportunities to get experience and working with people and using their skills and learning in school and providing people that have needs with a means to make their lives better or easier and just help them in any way possible.”
The design process with Alpha Prosthetics is highly focused on the client. Unlike a traditional design process, where engineers may be working with statistical analysis or other data removed from the people who will actually receive the prostheses, Alpha Prosthetics’ process involves a direct connection with clients to implement design solutions.
“In our market research, we found that although a lot of prosthetics are fit for specific people, there's not a lot of money to be made in specifically making it for the task that someone would need help with—so there’s not a lot out there,” said Klayton Rhoades, an undergraduate in biomedical engineering at George Fox who is spearheading the project.
“The biggest thing that sets us apart is how much we really want to get the client involved in the design process,” he said. “A lot of times in business, they're selling to people, but they've kind of forgotten that there's a person on the other end. That's the biggest thing.”
The traditional focus becomes a problem for clients that have extraordinary functional challenges in their everyday lives. In its proof of concept, Alpha Prosthetics worked with clients facing functional difficulty due to cerebral palsy and Townes-Brocks syndrome, which affects the hands. Clients with these chronic conditions need more than a prosthetic to replace a limb—they need task-specific prosthesis to help them regain the function they have lost.
Task-specific prostheses are an order of magnitude more complex than ordinary prostheses. For example, a client with cerebral palsy will have no difficulty finding a prosthetic splint to help them walk with less difficulty. But they’ll still have to manage the challenge of other ordinary, day-to-day tasks that can become impossible with the chronic illness, like typing on a computer or using a hand to manipulate complex objects.
The opportunities are as endless as they are difficult to orchestrate logistically. A client with cerebral palsy may not be able to open and close their hand, so Alpha Prosthetics could design a special prosthetic glove to allow that. A client may not be able to type because their fingers lack rigidity, so Alpha Prosthetics could design a sleeve to provide it.
Similarly, Townes-Brocks syndrome causes mobility challenges with the hands, making it difficult to eat with a spoon, use a toothbrush or manipulate a computer mouse, so Alpha Prosthetics could design custom-fitting, task specific prostheses to solve these problems.
But with the way the industry typically works, these applications don’t have profitability because there’s only a market of one to sell to.
“It hits a wall when businesses are trying to be profitable,” Rhoades said. “If you make something for one person, you can’t as easily sell it or fit it to another person. It may be only one or two people that have the specific tasks they need help with. So there's definitely still some challenges that come with it.”
But profit isn’t the driving motivation behind Alpha Prosthetics. “We don't have a traditional business model in the sense that we are specifically doing this in search of profit,” Willems said. “We are more focused on the charitable efforts on both ends and helping engineers connect and helping the people that connect with having a better life.”
Alpha Prosthetics’ innovation would make it easier to connect engineers with clients to get them the prosthetics that will best improve their quality of life. “It's that kind of new approach that provides a lot of help and we would say would be an innovation in that space,” said Rhoades.