19 Apr 2016 21:18 IST

This R2D2 creates a different kind of industrial magic

From light-weight prosthetics to a standing wheelchair, the IIT-M lab develops affordable assistive devices

Walking into Dr Sujatha Srinivasan’s lab in IIT Madras is like entering a sci-fi movie set, with futuristic looking prosthetics models on table-tops and assistive devices in various stages of design and development. The Associate Professor, who heads the Rehabilitation Research and Device Development Lab (R2D2) at IIT Madras, leads a team of researchers / engineers of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

With the goal of developing indigenous solutions that are functional and affordable, they are working on a range of high-quality, assistive devices, such as wheelchairs, and orthotic and prosthetic aids to help those with locomotor disabilities become more independent. The most well-known, and eagerly awaited, of these is the standing wheelchair (SWC), the prototype of which has gone through several modifications.

Patents, awards

The lab has developed other rehabilitation devices that have undergone user testing and are being fine-tuned. These are: a swimming pool lift, a body-movement driven wheelchair and a walk-chair for children with cerebral palsy, improved prosthetic and orthotic knee-joints, and an add-on attachment to a conventional wheelchair that converts it to a three-wheeled vehicle, dramatically improving its usability in the rural outdoors. The R2D2 group has filed for ten Indian patents so far for various devices. And Dr Sujatha’s students have won over a dozen awards for their designs in national and international forums.

The add-on device that improves the wheelchair's mobility, especially in the rural areas.

Even while doing her B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Madras (1992), Sujatha worked with a professor to come up with devices that would aid movement for the disabled, taking some of the prototypes to test in CMC (Christian Medical College), Vellore, an institution committed to quality and innovation. Sujatha did her MS at the University of Toledo, US, and worked with a company manufacturing prosthetics for about eight years before doing her PhD in Biomechanics at the Ohio State University, Columbus. She joined IIT-Madras as a faculty member in 2008, and has set up this one-of-a-kind lab that focuses on assistive devices.

Over 10 million people in the country suffer from locomotor disabilities caused by diseases such as multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, or as the result of an amputation or the process of aging. According to World Health Organisation numbers, as far back as 2003, about 20 million disabled people worldwide who needed a wheelchair did not have access to one.

Standing wheelchair

Completely mechanical and not dependent on electrical power, the standing wheelchair meets an important need of persons with spinal cord injuries and the resultant severe physical impairments. Apart from the obvious mobility solution — the final version will be able to move even on rough terrain — the device offers other benefits that can transform the lives of the wheelchair-bound.

Says Sujatha: “Those with lower-limb injuries may have to use a wheelchair all their lives. Seated in the same position through the day can result in various physical issues, such as pressure sores, lower blood circulation and greater dependence on other people for basic needs. One way to overcome these problems is to provide a mechanism to enable the person to stand.”

When R2D2 researchers and project officers Vivek Sarda and Swostik Dash demonstrate the standing wheelchair (SWC), it’s clear that years of modification and refinement have culminated in a sturdy, yet easy-to-use device that, at the proposed cost, could be a game-changer for the disabled. Both Swostik and Vivek did their dual degree (B.Tech, M.Tech) in Mechanical Engineering from IIT-M. Swostik had actually taken a job with a corporate before returning to the R2D2 lab once it received significant funding.

The standing wheelchair, and Swostik Dash demonstrating it in the semi-vertical and upright positions.

Last year, the SWC project received a grant of GBP 300,000 (over four years) from the UK-based Wellcome Trust. And, soon after, the TTK group committed ₹3.68 crore to all of R2D2 activities over the next five years, from its CSR programme. The lab is now named the TTK Centre for Rehabilitation Research and Device Development.

Such long-term funding, says Sujatha, is crucial in commercialising the devices and making them more affordable for the common man. This is because the grant not only supports project expenses such as travel and salaries but also the manufacture of prototypes and the extensive testing process, which is essential before certification can be sought for larger-scale manufacture.

Industry, user partners

Says Sujatha: “I really want this lab to be a launchpad where people learn to design and make prototypes of all kinds of assistive devices, and then spin off to set up manufacturing units on their own, with R2D2 providing R&D support. This will make such equipment more widely available and less expensive.”

The latest prototype of the SWC was built by R2D2’s industry partner Phoenix Medical Systems, whose MD, V Sashi Kumar, is an ex-IITian. Phoenix not only has the capacity to make the final product and obtain the certifications required but will also take care of the sales and marketing related to the SWC. The prototypes are being tested in association with user-testing partners Spinal Foundation of India and the Association of People with Disabilities, feedback from whose members is invaluable in the SWC’s design modification and improvement.

Product testing is key, and Sujatha intends the SWC to conform not only to Indian standards but to meet stringent international norms, such as the ISO standards, CE certifications and the European traceability norms. Industry partner Phoenix Medical Systems is responsible for such strength and mechanical assessments as well.

Career option

Phoenix is a 25-year-old company with a philosophy which matches that of the R2D2 team. When Sashikumar saw the prototype in the lab, he decided to take up its development, saying all wheelchairs should be made like this. Phoenix’s expertise in affordable manufacturing is crucial to making the price point of the SWC comparable to that of a good quality manual wheelchair. This is possible also because Wellcome Trust’s grant, aimed at creating a social impact, covers the cost of all the initial equipment such as jigs and other fixtures required to manufacture the wheelchair.

“Such support also makes it attractive for students to join the lab to work on bio-medical projects, as they are assured of a vibrant, supportive and collaborative research environment,” said Dr Sujatha. “I think this is very important because I want students to consider such research projects as a viable career option that also has the benefit of making a difference to society.”

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