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Students think outside the box with physical therapy project

September 25, 2009

Dwight Schaeffer, a Valley physical therapist, isn’t the only one who recognizes the value of the Advanced Technology Innovation Center (ATIC) and the students in the College of Technology and Innovation at Arizona State University. The U.S. News & World Report recently credited both entities as playing a nurturing role in making Phoenix one of the top 10 cities offering tech job opportunities.

ATIC, based at the Polytechnic campus, facilitates science and technology collaborations between businesses and ASU entities for research, design and development of new products or concepts.

Along with ATIC and the engineering technology students in the college, Schaeffer is realizing a dream of developing an automated robotic physical therapy device. Schaeffer has a patent on the device but needed a prototype built in order to move it closer to commercialization.

He contacted ATIC after seeing an article about the center, and the project evolved into a capstone project, which is a culminating activity for undergraduate students in the College of Technology and Innovation.

The first phase of the project, completed last spring, involved research and finalizing a workable design for the device, including a 3-D animated computer model of the device. The second phase, which started this fall semester, is to build a working computer controlled prototype of the arm and shoulder manipulation system, including an easy to use control system interface.

“This is a challenging project,” says Jerry Gintz, senior lecturer in the mechanical and manufacturing engineering technology program and adviser for the project. “This has pushed the students outside their comfort zones to think about the electromechanical systems involved. Humans have sensory perception that robots don’t have, and the students had to consider these carefully in the design.”

Students started with a drawing of what Schaeffer had in mind for the design. Students researched the ergonomics and engineering involved in FDA-approved therapeutic devices that already existed in the market. Through this research, students took Schaeffer’s drawing and revised it into a therapy table that is similar to a dentist chair but can lay flat.

The mechanics behind the table involve a system of electric motors, or actuators, and other devices that will operate the movements but also can sense resistance in the patient’s limbs and stop before causing injury.

“There were definitely obstacles to overcome with the project. One was our lack of knowledge about human anatomy and the lines of body movement,” says mechanical engineering technology senior Amber Brown.

Mark Degarriz, a senior in the mechanical engineering technology program, agrees. “We had to figure out how to engineer the different mechanisms that would move the body in all of the different motions," he says. "At the same time, we had to keep it simple and safe to use.”

Schaeffer is happy with what the students developed. “This is very complex machinery but it’s created in a way that technicians can be trained to run it safely and efficiently,” Schaeffer says. “Safety is the main concern and the students have built that into the design.

“I’m excited about how far-reaching this device’s capabilities will go, how many audiences it will help,” Schaeffer adds. “This can help not only post-operative patients, it also can help people with debilitating diseases such as muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis.”

“This is a real-world project,” says Gintz. “This is a project that will allow the students to apply their engineering education while helping the community.”

Schaeffer says he has enjoyed working with the students on the project. “The kids have done a great job. I’m having almost as much fun as they are.”

Deborah Prewitt,
(480) 727-1023
Public Affairs at ASU Polytechnic campus