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Building a better wheelchair

Thrombosis, or the pooling of poorly circulated blood in the legs and upper body, is an urgent concern for people in wheelchairs and those in the advanced stages of muscular dystrophy. Left untreated, it can cause blood clots and lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Even passengers on a long airplane flight, says Peter van Kollenburg, should get up once or twice during their journey and move around the aircraft.

Students from The Netherlands came to Lehigh to compare prototypes.

Van Kollenburg, a professor of electronical engineering at the Fontys University of Professional Education in The Netherlands, and seven Fontys engineering students no doubt remembered to stretch their limbs on a recent transatlantic flight that brought them to Lehigh.

The students, who are enrolled in Fontys’s integrated product development (IPD) program, worked long distance last fall with IPD students from Lehigh and from Mexico’s Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM) on the International Wheelchair Improvement Project.

Collaborating by phone and e-mail, in Internet chat rooms and in a video-conferencing session, the three teams of students designed a product that could one day make life easier for 1.5 million Americans and millions more worldwide who use wheelchairs.

Their goal: To design a device that would allow wheelchair users to press a button and actively exercise their upper and lower bodies. Users now rely on nurses or therapists to move their muscles and prevent thrombosis.

A crank call

The three teams divided the work. The Fontys team fashioned a device to exercise the arms and upper body of wheelchair patients. The Lehigh team did likewise for the legs and ankles. The Mexican team developed an ergonomically appealing, demographically targeted industrial design for the wheelchair.

On Dec. 11, the Fontys and Lehigh teams assembled in the Wilbur Powerhouse to meet in person and review each other’s prototypes.

The prototype wheelchair

The Lehigh team described their visit to Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Home in Allentown, sponsor of the project, where they spoke with wheelchair users. The team members—Wilhelm Heinrich, Jack Reany, Holly Thompson, Matthew Tomik, Baskar Vempati and Michael Fendya—all graduate students in mechanical engineering, had two core objectives: simplicity and a user’s ability to exercise.

The Lehigh team devised a crank system, containing a crankshaft and a connecting rod and requiring only an on-off switch, to rotate a user’s knees and ankles. The rod length can be adjusted to achieve the optimal angle for rotation depending on the user’s size.

The Fontys team also visited a hospital to consult with specialists, therapists and wheelchair users as part of their coursework in “assistive technology” and human engineering. The Fontys group worked last spring with the University of Bath in England on a similar IPD project. The Fontys portion of the current wheelchair project concluded with a presentation in The Netherlands on Jan. 22.

The six-year-old IPD program at Fontys has also had international collaborations with the Universities of Budapest, Magdeburg (Germany), Grenoble (France) and Oulu (Finland).

”A good lesson in motivation”

The Lehigh graduate IPD program was started in 1996 with grants from the Community of Agile Partners in Education (CAPE) and from NASA. It has collaborated on projects with Fontys, the Universities of Bath and Magdeburg, and, in 2003, Mexico’s Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM).

The wheelchair-improvement project, says Martin Post, a human mechanical engineering major at Fontys, “has widened my view of how people work on projects. It’s been good to see how American students work, and it’s been a good lesson in motivation.

“We had to keep in close contact by e-mail, phone and chat rooms. It took awhile to get disciplined, but we did. The time difference is six hours, and that took a while to get used to. Sometimes we called the Americans and Mexicans out of bed.”

Heinrich, who earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Lehigh in 1999, says the wheelchair project “was a great opportunity to learn integrated product development at the international level. We developed our goals and needs after communicating with the students at the University of Fontys. And we had the chance to work with actual Europeans and Mexicans.”

Heinrich is now a computer-aided design engineer with Delbar Products in Telford, Pa., where he works on the outside rear-view mirrors for the auto industry. As a Lehigh undergraduate, he did an IPD project on a head-restraint device for an infant car seat.

Van Kollenburg, who supervised the Fontys students, and John Ochs, Lehigh IPD director and professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics, say there are no formal plans to commercialize the new wheelchair designs. If individual students wish to carry the project further, university officials will give advice on establishing a start-up company and soliciting funding.

“Our goal was to give students a unique international experience in developing new products with an internationally dispersed design team,” says Ochs. “For a three-credit, one-semester course, I think our students accomplished quite a bit.”

Lehigh’s undergraduate IPD program, a four-year interdisciplinary program, was founded in 1994. It has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and a curriculum innovation award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and has been featured in The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report.

Seven undergraduate IPD teams from Lehigh have been selected to display their projects at the annual “March Madness of the Mind” through the years. The event has been held at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and at the Museum of Science in Boston, Mass., and is scheduled next month for the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose,
Calif.

--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Friday, February 13, 2004

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