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Students Design Prosthetic Arms, Seek Innovative Solutions

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Joanne Tilley, a Seattle artist with a prosthetic left arm, had long envisioned collaborating with industrial design students to develop innovative designs for prosthetic devices. Last year, she proposed the idea to Magnus Feil, a UW professor of industrial design. The result was an Autumn Quarter 2009 course that focused on prosthetic design, with Tilley serving as adviser. 

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Students' prosthetic prototypes, laid out on a table for student presentations.

“I thought it was the ideal challenge,” says Feil, who focused specifically on prosthetic arms for the class project.  “Not much has been done in the field of prosthetic devices. They look pretty much the same as they did a century ago, with a long shaft and a hook at the end. They can look rather scary.”

Actually, there has been progress, including some astonishingly high-tech prosthetics that mimic the workings of a human hand. But such solutions are prohibitively expensive for most amputees. What Tilley and Feil sought were affordable solutions that pushed the envelope of prosthetic design—useful, but stylish enough that people wouldn’t be tempted to hide the prosthesis.

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Joanne Tilley, foreground right, served as an adviser to the class, sharing her firsthand experience with prosthetics. She watches as students present their ideas for prosthetic arms. Media credit: Magnus Feil

Feil’s students, seniors majoring in industrial design, welcomed the challenge. Explains student Dana Badeen, “A prosthetic is not just a tool. It becomes part of a person, a part of their being. And so it becomes much more than designing a thing. It’s really designing part of lives.”

The class was fortunate to have Tilley as an adviser, sharing her experience using a prosthetic arm. She answered questions with unflinching honesty, addressing the physical challenges of an amputee as well as the psychological and societal challenges.

“The students asked tough questions, astute questions,” says Tilley. “There were days I left feeling very raw. It’s very personal. But this work is important to me, and I think the best work comes from risk and vulnerability.”

Students also heard from Ray Pye of the Prosthetic Outreach Foundation, which develops extremely low-tech prosthetics for third world countries, and from researcher (and UW alumnus) Wayne Daly, a local prosthetist working on high-end devices.

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Photo: "Chosen" by Ellen Garvens, 2010. This prototype, designed by Sophie Milliotte, has an arm that swivels and a "thumb" that flips down when needed to hold objects securely.

Then students did some testing of their own, going through whole days with one hand taped tightly to get a sense of the challenges faced by someone without the use of one hand. What they learned, in part, was that their free hand could do tasks requiring finesse while the taped hand could manage simpler tasks, such as bracing an apple against the counter while the dominant hand peeled it.

“That was an important discovery—that it doesn’t always make sense to recreate a hand or fingers,” says Feil. “It’s more important to look at the interaction between the working hand and the prosthesis so the two can be team players. By finding these interaction patterns, students had lots of clues for their final designs.”

To create their design prototypes, most students worked with high-density foam. Some chose simple solutions—one sleek design features an unobtrusive clamp that can flip down as needed to hold objects firmly—while a few created more complex mechanisms. One student created a flexible “spine” that curls to grasp objects. Another, having learned that the point at which a prosthetic attaches to the arm can be highly sensitive to pressure, created a system for adjustable support at the upper arm socket to distribute forces.

“It took them a while to realize that you can’t make a device that does everything and does it well,” says Tilley. “You have to make a choice. To try to do everything breeds mediocrity.”

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Industrial design student Kyoka Hinami explains her prosthetic design.

Badeen’s solution was to create a prosthetic from a single sheet of plastic that could be molded to a person’s specific shape and inexpensively produced. “I wanted to create something that could be manufactured, but also customizable or adjustable,” she explains. “I started with a modular approach, where you could replace parts as they wore out, but I kept trying to simplify the pieces until I ended with a single, super cheap piece.  I also made choices about the role of the prosthetic. Why does it have to look like a hand at all? I wanted mine to be beautiful, but in a way that wasn’t trying to blend too hard. An analogy might be like choosing some really cool-looking glasses over contact lenses. Both are effective tools.”

Badeen’s approach reflects Feil’s charge to the students. “I definitely pushed them away from going too naturalistic,” he says. “I wanted them to treat the prosthetic more as an artifact that could create awareness and that someone would be proud to wear.”

Students were not able to work out all the kinks in their designs during the quarter, nor were they expected to.  After all, they had less than two months to learn about the challenges of prosthetic arms and less than four weeks to create a prototype.  Nevertheless, both Feil and Tilley deem the project a great success. 

“A lot of this is meant to inspire people,” says Feil. “We wanted to see as many ideas as possible.  Twenty students donated their creativity and brain power. In the end, hopefully some of these seeds fall on the ground, where new designs can emerge.”

The industrial design students’ prosthetic prototypes will be on display at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery in the School of Art on Friday, February 19, noon to 9 pm, and Saturday, February 20, 10 am - 4 pm. A reception will be held Friday, 6 - 9 pm, at which students will be present to discuss their designs. The reception is open to the public.