WUOMFM

Two GVSU engineering students help a little girl use her arms

Jul 23, 2015

Lylah's first full test run with the Angel Arms Exoskeleton prototype
Credit screenshot

Sometimes the best way to approach an engineering problem isn’t complicated or costly.  

Two Grand Valley State mechanical engineering students took a step back and simplified a way to help a little girl use her arms.

Joe Kissling is part of the team that has constructed the “Angel Arms Exoskeleton.”

Kissling tells us that he and Brooks Schaefer were introduced to the project through a medical device design course at GVSU that emphasized “project-based learning.”

“It’s kind of minimal instruction,” he says. “The ideas and projects are given to the students, and the students have creative and design freedom to solve the problem as they see fit, and to learn along the way.”

Kissling says that he and Schaefer were tasked with designing a device to help Lylah, a 17-month-old girl with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. The condition makes it difficult for Lylah to move and use her arms.

Together they created the Angel Arms Exoskeleton. Kissling explains that the device works by neutralizing the weight of Lylah’s arms so that she can more easily move them around.

“Think about when you’re in water, you’re neutrally buoyant. The exoskeleton arms simulate that,” he says. “They support her arms, and the weight … is canceled out by a series of springs and elastic bands that affix to the frame.”

Before the device, Kissling says the weight of Lylahs arms was too much for her to even lift a tiny cheese puff to her mouth. Now, she’s able to feed herself. She can write. She can knock over her toys.

The two were assigned the project based on their experience with 3-D printing.

“3-D printers, they’re amazing tools for a project just like this,” Kissling says. He explains that they can make custom parts, are economically viable for low-production runs, and they’re great for the environment because there’s so little waste.

On top of that, he says that, “3-D printers can make much more complex geometries. They can build shapes that traditional manufacturing methods simply can’t do.”

Kissling tells us that this isn’t the first device of its kind, but working with 3-D printers allowed them to create the exoskeleton at a fraction of what other devices cost.

“We’ve gone with the open-source route. That allows us to leave the cost solely on the materials that it takes,” he says.

This project was a great piece of hands-on, in-the-field experience, but Kissling says that more importantly, “it’s been a reaffirmation of the calling.”

“One of the big themes of the Order of the Engineer is that our duty is to the public, is to the people,” he tells us. “My duty as an engineer is to better the lives of everybody.”

- Ryan Grimes, Stateside