Atlanta, GA,
15:44 PM

Challenge Accepted

Shepherd Center partners with Georgia Tech students and faculty to advance assistive technology for people with spinal cord injuries (SCI).

At the beginning of every 15-week Capstone Design course at Georgia Tech, students are issued a challenge – this spring, mechanical engineering students were charged with developing a product that will help people with spinal cord injuries in their everyday lives.

The resulting items are the product of an innovative collaboration between Shepherd Center and Georgia Tech which is funded by a grant from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation and led by Stephen Sprigle, Ph.D., PT, professor of bioengineering, industrial design, and mechanical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, director of Georgia Tech’s Rehabilitation Engineering and Applied Research Lab (REARLab), and director of assistive technology research and innovation at Shepherd Center.

To develop the challenges, Dr. Sprigle collects ideas from Shepherd patients and staff, including the Assistive Technology Center. He then presents teams of Georgia Tech seniors with challenges for their Capstone Design course. The students work with Shepherd patients and therapists to develop, test, and refine potential solutions to the challenges. One team created a roll-on tire scrubber to clean wheelchair tires, another, a hook and bag for adaptive cornhole, and a third, a postural support system for airline travel.

Throughout the semester, Dr. Sprigle coaches his students on everything from choosing a feasible project to time management. He also reminds them to seek simple solutions first.

“I tell students that if you get to a fork in the road and have simplicity or complexity, always start with simplicity. Prove that you have to go complex — don’t assume that you do,” he explains.

The 15-week course culminates with a design expo for students to present their solutions to attendees – but this summer, the hard work didn’t end there. Funding from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation and the office of Georgia Tech’s Executive Vice President for Research allowed graduate students in the REARLab to assess how their products could help more people. 

“We wanted to figure out how to make these designs more available, and that could involve finding a manufacturer and a distributor. Not all these functional one-offs will graduate, but we're focusing on the process,” Dr. Sprigle explains.

Taylor Allen and Xavier Simonelli, graduate research assistants in the REARLab, spent their summer refining some of the prototypes and trying different production techniques to improve the final product while making it easier and more cost-effective to produce.

“We're taking these functional prototypes and investigating different manufacturing methods to figure out how to bring these assistive technology devices to market,” Simonelli explains.

Allen and Simonelli also researched whether similar products already exist to fill a need. For example, when they developed a deodorant holder, they found that an existing water bottle holder had many of the characteristics of the prototype and could double as a deodorant holder.

“Although we did design a nice deodorant holder, we found a similar product on the market that does exactly what we're trying to do, so there's no real value in making a small batch of this product. We posted our instructions on how to fabricate it on Instructables, so if anybody wants to make it, they can,” Allen explains.

They didn’t find products similar to the adaptive cornhole hook, so they sent prototypes to rehabilitation centers, including Shepherd, and plan to gather feedback from patients and staff.

“I'm happy that we collaborate with Shepherd because there's an endless number of ideas they bring us. It keeps us creative and happy to try something new,” Allen says.

According to Dr. Sprigle, the products are important, but equally important is the process, which involves input from Shepherd patients, expertise from Shepherd clinicians, and expertise from Georgia Tech students and faculty.

“We attend to market —how many people might this help?” Dr. Sprigle says. “The market analysis might involve interviewing the client who got the product and the clinicians involved. We deal with the technical side, the functional characteristics of the device, and the manufacturing.”

Even if the conclusion is that it doesn’t make sense to produce the product on a larger scale, the information gleaned is valuable.

“This is about developing an approach, a process,” Dr. Sprigle says.

Deborah Backus, PT, Ph.D., FACRM, vice president of research and innovation at Shepherd is enthusiastic about the future of this program and what it will bring to Shepherd Center.

“I am so excited about strengthening our collaboration with Dr. Sprigle and Georgia Tech,” Dr. Backus says. “Through these projects, we are learning what we need to do to not only design and develop new, innovative solutions for the people we serve, but also how to bring these solutions to market for others who might need them.”

Written by Ruth Underwood.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.