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Tuesday, November 13, 2012
The iWalk BiOM prosthetic ankle enables amputees to walk naturally and effortlessly. Photos courtesy of iWalk
ENG alums help advance lifelike prosthetic leg
A breakthrough robotics technology is enabling a growing number of amputees to walk naturally and effortlessly.
In recent years, carbon fiber technology has made possible the production of lighter, stronger artificial limbs that provide increased mobility to injured soldiers, people with diabetes, and others with missing or impaired lower limbs. But moving about with a carbon fiber prosthetic can be like walking in sand: putting one foot in front of the other takes up to 50 percent more energy than that expended by people with natural limbs.
That’s where a new prosthetic ankle, the BiOM by iWalk, Inc., commercially available since September 2011, comes in. Supplying that extra energy through batteries, motors, and springs, the 4.5-pound BiOM replicates the action of the foot, Achilles tendon, and calf muscles to provide powered plantar flexion, or push-off.
Among the 60 iWalk employees who are shaping the future of bionic technology at the Bedford, Mass.–based start-up are three College of Engineering mechanical engineering alumni—Weston Smith (ENG’11), Josh Prescott (ENG’11), and Chris Park (ENG’11). They are part of iWalk’s effort to rebuild and restore natural motion from the ground up to potentially millions of affected individuals.
Witnessing the transfer of iWalk’s technology to veterans and active-duty soldiers has been the greatest on-the-job reward, says Smith, who started working for the company as a quality engineer in October 2010.
“It was neat to send our first commercial shipment of prosthetic ankles to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and be there to see people walk on them for the first time,” he says.
Now working as a manufacturing engineer, Smith’s job is to improve the manufacturing process and incorporate design improvements into iWalk’s production line. It’s the job he set his sights on in 2009, when he was a lab technician without engineering credentials at a medical device company. With an undergraduate degree in visual arts and experience as a cabinetmaker and carpenter, he enrolled in ENG’s Late Entry Accelerated Program (LEAP), which permits nontraditional students and working professionals to obtain a graduate degree in engineering, as the ticket to his dream job.
“I couldn’t find anything else like it in the country,” Smith recalls. “Having the chance to study engineering after having been on a different path helped me to be really flexible, which is what’s required here. It’s a small enough place that we all do a little bit of everything beyond our core engineering tasks, from writing marketing materials to delivering the product to customers.”
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