Graduate student works to make prosthetics accessible in developing countries

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mechanical engineering graduate student Jessica Menold is part of a team of engineers working to make prosthetics more accessible in developing countries. The group recently received the EXIST Business Start-Up Grant from the German Federal Ministry from Economic Affairs and Energy, which will allow them to officially launch their startup company Amparo. 

The EXIST grant provides awards of up to 200,000 euros to help students, graduates and scientists bring innovative projects and services to market. The team will receive EXIST funds in two installments, starting with 30,000 euros to develop a prototype and business plan. Once that work is approved by the EXIST board, the group will have access to up to an additional 130,000 euros to move ahead with production.

Amparo is developing a prosthetic socket that is easier and cheaper to make than current options. Sockets are the interface between a prosthetic device and the amputee’s limb. They have to be made by a specially trained prosthetist and custom fit to the amputee, so they are the most expensive part of a prosthetic limb.

“We really wanted to focus on how we could innovate around the socket,” said Menold. “There has been a lot of work in prosthetic knees and feet, but there hasn’t been a ton of work in sockets, especially for developing countries. What we found was that not only is it difficult and very time consuming to make sockets, the amputees have to come back to the clinic many times.”

To overcome these hurdles, the group is using a thermoplastic material that becomes pliable when heated. The material can be boiled and then molded to an amputee’s limb to create the socket. The process requires no special tools and can be completed in one visit. The Amparo socket also incorporates a ratcheting system so the amputees can adjust the socket themselves throughout the day to account for changes to their residual limb.

“We found while talking with amputees that their limb changes in volume by approximately 20 percent throughout the day,” said Menold. “There are points in the day, particularly in Brazil and South Africa where it gets so hot, when the limb is so swollen they can't wear their socket.”

If an amputee’s limb drastically changes in size from weight loss or gain, Amparo’s thermoplastic can be reboiled and remolded to the limb, while traditional sockets have to be discarded if they no longer fit. This new technology will save amputees a huge amount of money, especially in the first months after amputation when the limb size is changing rapidly as the swelling from surgery reduces.

The idea to develop a prosthetic technology to help amputees evolved from a project with the Global Engineering Teams (GET) program, which is a consortium of design-minded universities from around the world. GET helps engineering students develop essential global teamwork skills. Each multidisciplinary, intercultural team is posed a real-world problem by an industry sponsor. Penn State has participated in the GET consortium since 2011.

Menold and Wesley Teerlink, also a Penn State mechanical engineering graduate student at the time, were selected for GET in 2014. They were partnered with Lucas Paes de Melo, a public health student and Isabel Bahiana Wotzasek, a graphic design student from Hasso-Plattner Institute of Germany, and Matthew Dion, a biomedical engineering student from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The team was tasked with increasing access to prosthetic limbs in developing countries. Their project was funded by GE Inspection Technologies and the Penn State Center for Research in Design and Innovation.

“GET provides students with an experience they can’t get any other way,” said Matthew Parkinson, associate professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, who runs the GET program for Penn State. “Students travel, work with international teammates in person, and work on graduate-worthy projects. There is nothing at Penn State that duplicates this program.”

Since the first GET prototypes, the team has come a long way. The EXIST grant provides for several full-time employees, so Teerlink, Paes de Melo and Wotzasek are all working on the project full time from Berlin, Germany. The group has also added another engineer from Germany, Felix Dietrich. Menold and Dion continue to work on the project while finishing their doctoral degrees in the U.S.  

Amparo’s next step is to develop a high quality prototype to take to manufacturers to see how feasible it is to manufacture. The bulk of the work is taking place at a prosthetics office in Berlin, which gives the group constant access to amputee feedback.

Since the beginning, the team has used a human-centered design process, working closely with amputees to modify the socket design for the best fit and functionality. Early on, Paes de Melo and Wotzasek traveled around South Africa visiting hospitals and rehab centers to talk to amputees. Currently, Menold is talking to amputees at Penn State and working closely with an undergraduate student who is a quad amputee.

Menold attributes the group’s success beyond GET to this user-focused design approach, which she was introduced to by her teammates.

“Isabel and Lucas exposed us to human-centered design and the whole team adopted it,” Menold said. “They really made us think about what the user wants, and I now use human-centered design in every other product or design I'm involved in. I don't think that necessarily would have happened if the team was all engineers. I'm sure we would have talked to users, but I don't think we would have traveled around South Africa for two weeks to interview people.”

The interdisciplinary team also taught Menold about business and marketing strategy, something she would not have been exposed to with her doctoral research.  

“I knew I wanted to go into entrepreneurship, so this project is really giving me a great experience with learning how you actually launch a startup,” Menold said. “I'm really lucky, the Penn State mechanical and nuclear engineering department and my advisers are so incredibly supportive of allowing students to explore their passions and figuring out how they can have a huge impact on the world around them.”

Menold’s doctoral advisors are Tim Simpson, professor of mechanical engineering and industrial and manufacturing engineering, and Kathryn Jablokow, associate professor of mechanical engineering and engineering design. Elizabeth Kisenwether, assistant professor of engineering design, was the group’s Penn State mentor for the EXIST grant application. Menold also completed her undergraduate degree at Penn State and was involved with the Engineering Ambassador program.

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Last Updated March 02, 2016