Building a Better Mobility Device

Capstone Design process becomes a family affair

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Capstone Design process becomes a family affair

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Capstone Design process becomes a family affair

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  • League of Extraordinary Engineers League of Extraordinary Engineers
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In baseball, if you want any chance of connecting, you’ve got to swing a rounded bat at an elusive round ball speeding toward you. When making a proposal to the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) Capstone Design program all I had to do was hit the ‘submit’ button, and I connected twice.


Last July, my wife and I submitted a project idea on behalf of our son, Joe. The online form asks for a “clinical need to be addressed.” As a baby, Joe was diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia, a severe form of cerebral palsy. He’s 14 now and his needs are wide-ranging. So we focused on mobility and proposed a better ‘gait trainer,’ an assistive walking device on wheels for people like Joe who can’t walk independently.


The market for pediatric devices is challenging enough and the device we were proposing, with an improved harness and mobility, addresses really specific needs. Since there’s no guarantee that a student Capstone team will take on your project, and since most proposals are submitted by healthcare professionals, biomedical industry members and academic researchers, we didn’t have a lot of expectations.


Then I got an email shortly after fall semester began, from James Rains, professor of practice and director of BME Capstone. Our project had “received quite a bit of student interest,” he wrote. “After additional review we felt that it would be preferable to have two multi-disciplinary teams take a crack at trying to develop a solution.”


Suddenly, we’d gone from a shot in the dark to a double bulls eye. It was a little intimidating. Now the pressure was on, for Jane and I as Joe’s parents, but especially for the engineering seniors who had only until December to conceive of and complete a prototype designed to serve our boy’s mobility needs.


“Teaming up with not one, but two, design teams seemed like it was going to be one of those, taking-on-more-than-we-could-chew projects,” says Jane, who works for the Georgia Parent Mentor Partnership, a group that works to improve outcomes for students with disabilities by fostering collaboration between families, educators and the community.


“But as we got into the process, I realized that all the pressure was on these amazing students,” she says. “We were mainly there for support, to answer questions and to help Joe be part of the teams.”


And what teams they were, each comprised of biomedical (BME) and mechanical engineering (ME) students. Joe is a big fan of super heroes, so it felt perfectly natural to think of these senior students as super hero squads, a la the Avengers or the Justice League, each individual bringing his or her skills and super powers to accentuate the whole. That theme carried over into their work -- one of the teams used Iron Man colors for its device, and the other used an Iron Man image in their project video (proving they were both paying attention to my son's super hero preference).


First to reach out via email was a team that called itself, ‘Joey on the Move.’ Shushmita (Sushi) Hoque introduced herself as the team’s liaison. She and Clay Mangiameli were the biomedical engineers. They were joined by a trio of MEs: Austin Longnecker, Luke Smith and Tommy Garces.


“It was a big deal for us to work as an interdisciplinary team of engineers, to find something that involves biomedical and mechanical engineering, and when we saw Joey’s projects, we saw how everyone could play a role,” says Sushi.


Then we heard from the ‘League of Extraordinary Engineers,’ a six-person team with two BMEs, Tammy Diehl and Corey Holeman, and four MEs – Tim Burnham, Samantha Ramey, Jacob French and our liaison, Claire Servinsky.


Sushi and Claire kept us posted on the teams’ progress with regular updates as they reached their periodic deadlines every few weeks.


“We set up deliverable milestones throughout the semester, which helps facilitate how the teams get to their final design,” says Rains. “We don’t want the teams making a prototype on day one. They need to step back and figure out what the problem is that they’re trying to solve. It’s about understanding the user and the need first, and then understanding the engineering requirements.”


To help the teams understand what they were getting into, Jane and I shared videos of Joe walking in the gait trainers he used at home, school and at his physical therapy sessions (which used to be held at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, about 30 miles from our home in Sautee Nacoochee). 


The students made several road trips. Over the course of the semester, each team visited our home twice and made separate trips to observe Joe at physical therapy at UNG. In early September, they each came to the house – an 85-mile drive from Georgia Tech – so they could see the challenges up close.


Getting Joe into a gait trainer, with its harness and web of straps and difficult adjustments (and his dead weight – he can’t stand on his own), requires a strong back and an extra arm or two wouldn’t hurt. It typically takes two adults to get the job done. In working through the process, the students could see that what we needed was a device that was easier to use for both Joe and his aging parents!


“Both teams asked great questions,” says Jane. “And, while we didn’t have to explain the mechanics of the pieces of mobility equipment we were demonstrating, our teams learned a lot about the realities of people with motor and neuromuscular disabilities. This was very important to us. As end users of the potential designs they created, and because these designs were going to be our son’s path to more personal freedom and independent mobility, it was very important that the teams understood the whys and what ifs, not the just the what and the how of the designs.”


While both teams clearly considered all of the above, they took slightly different paths to their prototypes. Joey on the Move took a more methodical approach, like the one Rains describes, while The League moved fairly quickly into the design process.


“In BME the initial focus is on defining the problem, and that’s something that Sushi and I kept in mind,” explains Clay. “Meanwhile, the mechanical engineers were chomping at the bit, wanting to design a prototype right off the bat.”


So the team studied our son and how he moved. They also interviewed other physical therapists and families and clinicians who helped them understand the broad range of challenges associated with cerebral palsy. As parents, we made it clear early on that while our ideas were based on Joe’s needs, the teams might be better off thinking broadly about devices that could serve the needs of a larger population.


“Our main focus early on was to learn about the current devices out there and gain ideas from that,” says Sushi. It wasn’t until near the end of October that they had a viable design concept.


The League, on the other hand, seemed to follow an ME dominant approach – within a week of their early September visit, Claire sent us a copy of five design concepts they’d drawn up, asking what we liked and didn’t like about each. And by the middle of October, this note arrived from Claire: “We are moving along with our design and are getting close to being able to prototype our design. We are very excited to share our progress with you and to begin building our prototype!”


Meanwhile, Sushi kept sending us weekly updates, each report giving us a peek into what the Capstone process is like for these busy seniors:


• October 12 (following a visit to Joe’s PT session with Dr. Terrie Millard): “The meeting was extremely helpful as we learned more about what Joey needs and the specific problems he encounters when using his assistive mobility devices. … Additionally, our team is currently in the concept generation phase … each team member will be bringing in 20 concept sketches of devices or parts of a device that would perform particular functions.”


• Oct. 27: “… we have mainly focused on completing the Prior Art Report deliverable … we have begun to refine our final design to prepare it for prototyping. As seen in the report, our team has preliminary CAD (computer aided design) models for our top three concept designs. We are going forward with the first concept … once we finalize our design, we will order materials and begin building a prototype of the assistive walker we have designed.”


• Nov. 10: “ ... we met for approximately eight hours on Friday … spent a lot of time doing calculations to ensure that the device will be able to support the necessary weight and height. … we discussed at length the types of steel that we need. … The main issue is being able to build the device on time. We have less than a month before the Capstone Expo, so every second counts! …  we will be picking up some of our materials directly from McMaster-Carr, a local company, to avoid shipping time and costs. The frame metal is being shipped from Speedy Metals, which is located in the Midwest. … once the prototype is done, we will begin testing to see if the device is safe and if it can hold the required loads. … we have prepared a riveting sales pitch for a competition in our lab section.”


Then it was Joe’s turn to be a test pilot. The Sunday after Thanksgiving, both teams arrived at our house, a few hours apart, to give their prototypes a test run. Jane and I were like the proverbial kids in a toy store. The teams had created useable prototypes that were very different. The League of Extraordinary Engineers based their design on a TAOS Walker while Joey on the Move created something closer to the LiteGait (Joe has had experience on both of these mobility products). Both teams managed to simplify the harness and the process of getting Joe into the device, and improve the mechanism for raising and lowering the device, to adjust the effects of gravity on our son.


December 3rd was showtime, the Capstone Design Expo, when all engineering seniors put their projects on display and deliver their presentations to a rotating, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of judges and other attendees in McCamish Pavillion. Though it was a school night, Jane, Joe and I drove down to Atlanta to watch our teams in action.


After several months of research, of asking questions and gathering information and materials and turning all of that into a product, these students behaved like seasoned pros. If they were nervous, they didn’t show it.


“The expo itself was less stressful than the previous few months,” says Clay. “We’d gone through the design process, we knew the project backwards and forwards, gone through a pitch competition. We were ready. It felt like we got into a rhythm that night at the expo.”


Each team demonstrated how their prototypes work – diminutive Sushi actually strapped herself in to explain the device her team created. 


Both teams had videos of Joe using the device, and throughout the night, strangers who had visited our teams would come up to Joe and introduce themselves, “hey, you’re Joey! We just saw you on the video!” Our son basked in his new-found celebrity.


Though neither of our teams won an award at the expo, my family felt like champions of the night. Our son now had two different devices to help him comfortably achieve new levels of independent mobility. He’ll use the devices at home and we’ll continue adjusting and improving, taking the best aspects of each and marrying them together. They’re prototypes, wonderful works in progress. 


The students have graduated, moved on to the next challenges in their lives. Sushi is going to pursue medical school. We’ve made new friends and I feel as if the students gained new insights into what it’s like to try and remake the world so a child can just be a child, something my wife and I have been working at for 14 years.


“Overall, the Capstone Design experience was a great one for us,” says Jane. “We will experiment further with both of the designs and help Joe continue to perfect and demonstrate this mobility equipment, designed for a child with significant neuromuscular disorders.”

That was the point, after all. As the League of Extraordinary Engineers explains in its project description, “Our goal is to design and develop a mobility device to assist a specific child with cerebral palsy, in particular to make up-right mobility easier through improving core and head support without restricting his gait.”


Both teams accomplished what they set out to do for the fall semester. But this was just one lap in a much longer race -- Joe's life isn't a sprint; it's more like a marathon run over an obstacle course. Underlying all of that is the desire to be as fully human as possible. Before either team could make material improvements, they had to embrace Joe’s humanity. They accomplished this as well.


“The mom in me was very touched by how each team really seemed to connect with the kid in Joe,” Jane says. “Sometimes, it’s important for a kid to just be a kid. Our Capstone teams never lost sight of that.”


Story by Jerry Grillo

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Wallace H. Coulter Dept. of Biomedical Engineering

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capstone design, cerebral palsy, mobility
  • Created By: Jerry Grillo
  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created On: Jan 19, 2016 - 4:21pm
  • Last Updated: Oct 7, 2016 - 11:20pm