New product development takes an interdisciplinary and multifaceted approach
New product development takes an interdisciplinary and multifaceted approach
Business stagnation is never a good thing. It’s the reason assistive technology manufacturers continuously come up with innovative equipment and improve on their existing products. REHACARE.com shows the influence users have on the assistive technology industry and explains the research and development processes in manufacturing companies.
For medical technology companies in particular, the focus is also on research. This is the case with the collaboration between MedUni Vienna and Ottobock on the topic of Targeted Muscle Reinnervation (TMR), which promises more intuitive prosthetic control.
We can liken this to research and development departments (R&D), which work hard year-round to improve existing products and generate innovative equipment. Yet sometimes it’s people who are not part of the assistive technology industry who kick the product development process into high gear.
Why innovations don’t always come from the manufacturer
There are countless examples of how an idea inspired an innovation that made everyday life easier or safer for people with disabilities. LUCI is among these examples. Whether or not a child has a disability, parents always want to protect their offspring. Barry Dean was looking for a safety system for the power wheelchair of his daughter who was born prematurely with cerebral palsy. Unfortunately, he could not find what he needed.
Electric wheelchairs aren’t exactly lightweight and even a curb can cause users to tip over and fall, which can prove extremely dangerous, especially if people cannot pull themselves away of their own accord. Barry Dean was also concerned about traffic accidents as experienced by other wheelchair users. Dean desperately wanted to find a solution and do his part in preventing wheelchair accidents. He decided to ask his brother Jered, who is an engineer, for help.
The result is LUCI. "It is an attachable hardware/software product – the first of its kind – which uses cloud and sensor-fusion technologies to provide security, stability, and connectivity for power wheelchairs," according to the company website. The goal is to prevent collisions and falls from ramps or curbs.
LUCI is similar to the parking assistant in cars. Using sensors, the system scans the environment and stops the electric wheelchair in front of an obstacle if necessary.
But the brothers want more and don’t stop there. Wheelchair riders who use LUCI can also connect through Alexa, Google Assistant, or other comparable health devices/applications. But the convenience of connectivity and an excellent product still weren’t the only goals of the two inventors. They were eager to start development and didn’t want to wait for the industry and larger manufacturers to catch up and implement the idea for them. However, without the help of industry experts, LUCI would simply not exist because their know-how is deeply entrenched in the “safety system”. The inventors not only want to give something back but also aim to help people who depend on a tool like this. They realized that collaboration is key: By “developing a smart technology hardware-software system for power wheelchairs, LUCI is opening up opportunities for platform-based innovation and new research breakthroughs. Our ambition was for others in the industry to see LUCI and be inspired to elevate innovation, empower riders and create a more inclusive world that is reimagining modern mobility.”
In July last year, the team behind LUCI announced that, starting in September, selected Sunrise Medical models will soon feature the safety system as an option. In the end, the idea of Barry Dean and his brother found its way to the big manufacturers.
MEYRA: Involving end users in the development process
Safety was also an aspect MEYRA considered a top priority when it developed the iCHAIR MEYLIFE. The power wheelchair is not only ISO crash tested, but MEYRA also tested its function and safety pertaining to speed, braking distance and performance on uneven ground, inclines, and declines on a test track. What’s more, all-wheel suspension ensures added safety and comfort, as each wheel can react individually. This allows users to navigate edges and bumps more safely thanks to more traction. For Dennis Wegener, product manager for power wheelchairs at MEYRA, the latest model stands out "because it delivers high-quality functionality combined with an ultramodern design". Besides a dynamic running light effect, unique headlights and rear taillights that blend nicely into the overall look, the "innovative biomechanical back with lowering armrest is a feature that makes it stand out in a crowd of competitors." Aside from offering many additional functions, the iCHAIR MEYLIFE can also be customized to meet the unique needs of users. "Its integrated modular cable concept enables fast retrofitting of electrical adjustment options with every iCHAIR MEYLIFE (which is especially important given the user’s changing needs due to his/her disease)."
The latest member of the MEYRA product family is the iCHAIR MEYLIFE. The electric wheelchair was developed for complex clinical pictures and can therefore be individually adapted to the needs of the user.
The manufacturer is keen to offer custom solutions, while integrating user suggestions. Its research and development department not only draws on feedback from medical supply stores but also listens to end users, which communicate their requests via social media, e-mail, or trade show visits. The company subsequently created an active wheelchair based on user surveys. Tim Plaß, product manager Aktiv und Sport explains: "Our research showed that it’s difficult to find an active wheelchair that combines an easy folding technology with the comfort and stability of a rigid chair. Our NANO Xmodel combines both features. The folding system with its double cross brace enables intuitive operation for easy handling and provides rigid frame-like ride performance and wheelchair stability. The NANO X offers the stability of a rigid-frame active wheelchair but with a folding wheelchair concept." Based on criticisms of the previous model and a field test with wheelchair users before market launch, MEYRA optimized the folding technology considerably before it went into series production.
From 2012 to 2019, the company teamed up with Prof. Dr. Oskar Aszmann to research the position and function of nerves and muscles to intuitively control arm movements. The so-called MyoPlus pattern recognition was created as a result of their findings. At the award ceremony, Ottobock CTO Dr. Andreas Göppelt emphasized that "fundamental scientific research is very important for an innovative company like Ottobock because only the knowledge of underlying biological mechanisms enables the development of new concepts and products, such as the Myo Plus pattern recognition or Targeted Muscle Reinnervation (TMR) for arm prostheses."
Ottobock expects similar success from BionX and teamed up with its founder and head of the Center for Extreme Bionics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Hugh Herr to design an intuitive prosthetic leg. Along with the Robot Rehabilitation Center in Japan, the goal is to develop more promising rehabilitation successes for people with paraplegia. The Ottobock team also conducts research in Germany. The INOPRO research project of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) studies ways to produce intelligent prostheses and orthotics to improve human-technology interaction.
The Soft Exo-Suit enables stroke patients to train their gait more effectively.
ReStore Exo-Suit: Developed with experts and users
ReWalk Robotics is another innovative medical device company that works tirelessly to make better, more robust wearable robotic exoskeletons. "Our goals include expanding of the market penetration with our existing product lines and also development of powered solutions which will provide gait training and mobility for individuals who live with conditions such as MS, CP, Parkinson's disease and similar," David Hexner, Vice President of Research and Development at ReWalk sums up the company's goals. The ReStore Exo Suit was created for this type of gait training. Like other ReWalk models, the lightweight exoskeleton suit is battery-powered and intended for use in stroke rehabilitation.
The precise fit is paramount when it comes to ReWalk products. Hexner emphasizes that "exoskeletons are complex devices due to their inherent need to fit the human body and be able to interact well with all relevant users. This is even more true to the ReStore soft suit." But since the ReStore soft suit is a device that is meant to help in the gait rehabilitation of stroke patients, the company’s research and development department had to consider several factors. "In this case we had to take into account both patient's comfort and ease of use for the therapist leading the session." Between clinical trials and usability testing, the development took between two and three years. Feedback was also paramount in this setting. "Our design puts high emphasis on human factors and user feedback. We incorporate such feedback throughout the development cycle from initial prototypes to final validation," the Vice President of Research and Development adds.
Many factors need to be considered when developing a great assistive technology tool. The latest technology alone is not enough. It takes several key information sources – stemming from research, retail or stakeholders who are personally affected by the products.
Anne Hofmann (Translated by Elena O'Meara) REHACARE.com