There are 68 million wheelchair users worldwide, more than the populations of France or Italy or the UK. Exoskeletons like the new offering from Parker Hannifin could make many walk again—thanks to robotics.
PLAINDEALER.COM: Technology being developed by Parker Hannifin won’t repair the damage done by a car accident that paralyzed Michael Gore. But it could let him walk again
Like something out of a science fiction movie, the Parker mobility device attaches motorized joints to a patient’s hips and knees. With a bit of training and balance, patients can direct the skeleton to bend knees and hips to walk and climb stairs.
“It is a piece of machinery, you’ve got to keep that in mind. But it’s the closest to natural walking I’ve had since my injury,” Gore, 42, said of the exoskeleton that Cleveland industrial giant Parker has licensed from Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
It will be the first medical device by Parker, which is best known for its hydraulic pumps and electric motors.
Craig Maxwell, Parker vice president of technology and innovation, said the company’s decision to commercialize the medical device was part of a strategy to show off its technical leadership in motion and control technologies. And what could show off those capabilities more than restoring a person’s ability to walk.
“Nothing could really prepare me from the emotion that pours over you when you see a paralyzed person stand and walk,” Maxwell said.
He expects it to take at least a year to get the device through Food and Drug Administration tests, allowing the company to begin selling the exoskeletons in 2014.
How it works
Though Gore’s first thought was RoboCop, the Parker exoskeleton is closer to a Segway Scooter, controlled by the user’s body motions, than a cybernetic implant controlled by the patient’s thoughts.
“There is a tendency to think too much about these things, to put an electrode implant into your brain,” said Michael Goldfarb, the Vanderbilt mechanical engineering professor who designed the device. “If you do it that way, it will take you 20 years to get it onto the market, and it may not work as well.”
The Parker exoskeleton, which Goldfarb said is lighter and mechanically simpler than other robotic walking devices, uses sensors that determine if the patient is standing upright, sitting or leaning.
If the standing patient leans forward, the exoskeleton will bend its knee, swivel its hip joint and take a step. When the patient stops leaning forward, the device stops walking.
Paralyzed patients have been able to walk using crutches and stiff leg braces, effectively throwing their legs forward by using their upper-body strength. But Goldfarb said that process is extremely strenuous and can exhaust a patient quickly.
“In our studies, the exertion and the measurements [for patients using the exoskeleton] are about the same as a healthy person walking,” Goldfarb said. Patients still use crutches, but they’re for balance and direction.
Smartphones and tablets pushing the technology
Maxwell said Parker got excited about the Vanderbilt skeleton because it was taking advantage of technologies that were developing quickly in other markets.
The motion sensors, for example, are common in smart phones, allowing the devices to know if users are holding them up vertically or horizontally.
Cell phones and tablet computers are also pushing the energy levels of lithium batteries, making it easier to power the walking device.
“The technology [in mobile devices] really is amazing, and you take it for granted,” Maxwell said. He added that before the smart phone revolution, an exoskeleton “certainly would have been a lot more expensive and not really feasible, or not commercially feasible.”
Goldfarb and Maxwell said stroke victims and people with partial paralysis from other medical issues could further raise the market for an assisted-walking device.
Parker has not announced a price for the device, but Goldfarb said he’s confident that it can beat the $140,000 price tag for the ReWalk, the only exoskeleton now on the market.
The ReWalk, from Massachusetts-based Argo Medical Technologies, is heavier and bulkier than the Parker device and can’t be worn while sitting in a wheelchair, said Gore who has tested both systems.
Raising Parker’s profile
Getting the exoskeleton on the market will be a big challenge for Parker. Since its founding in 1918 by Arthur L. Parker, the company has been a supplier to other businesses, not a brand known to consumers.
Unless you’re building a jet engine, filtering water at a municipal utility or installing a hydraulic hybrid system on a garbage truck, odds are you’ve never seen a Parker product.
Maxwell said that five years ago, the company’s Chairman, President and Chief Executive Donald Washkewicz challenged his top managers to imagine what the next development in motion controls would be. At the time, Parker was trying to shed its image as a supplier of hydraulic pumps and electric motors and establish itself as a technological leader.
“After a lot of work, we looked at wind and water, things that we think could be leveraged from [Northeast Ohio], but we settled on this area of human motion and control,” Maxwell said. He added that the company’s leaders thought they could tap into the region’s medical device expertise in addition to Parker’s own capabilities in motion controls.
Rockney G. Walters, a marketing professor at Indiana University, said Parker’s use of the exoskeleton as a showpiece for its technological capabilities is a smart move.
“That is very, very profound. This is how they can leverage” their capabilities to show their expertise, Walters said. “It’s not that big of a deal to say we can robotize a factory control. But because it involves a human, it’s a very, very nice positioning of where they are in this business space.”
The fact that there’s a tangible social benefit - getting accident victims, wounded soldiers and stroke sufferers walking again - further enhances the company’s reputation, Walters added.
The exoskeleton is the first of what could be other medical devices by Parker. Maxwell said that the company will continue to look for cool products that can show off its internal capabilities, as long as those products don’t compete with its existing customers.
Get the exoskeleton to the market quickly
“The core of our business, there’s no change there,” Maxwell said, adding that the company still expects to be an industrial supplier.
From his home in North Carolina, Gore said he hopes Parker’s expertise will get the exoskeleton to the market quickly.
He’s used the device in research labs several times over the past two years, but he hasn’t been able to use one to sit in the bleachers at of his nephew’s high school football games.
“This device is not going to replace my wheelchair. But it will give me the freedom and the opportunity to get out of my chair as often as I can,” Gore said. “Independence from the chair, I believe that’s what all of us in a chair are looking for.”
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