Editor's Desk

By Michael Hughes

Step right into the future

The human body is the ultimate system.

Seven octillion atoms work together to form a set of subsystems – skeletal, circulatory, endocrine, lymphatic, respiratory, muscular, nervous and others – that allow you to navigate through daily life. But systems break down, and although medical doctors usually are best at rehabilitating the human body, others are tasked with manufacturing devices these professionals use on – and sometimes attach to – your body.

This is where industrial, manufacturing and systems engineers enter the picture. For millennia, humankind has been replacing amputated body parts with artificial prosthetics.

But gone are the days when ancient Egyptians used prosthetic wooden toes and fictional American captains manned ships on whale bone peg legs. Today’s prosthetics often come in computer-controlled contraptions that offer much more flexibility and functionality.

However, as Chun (Chuck) Zhang and Ben Wang explain in this month's cover story, prosthetic manufacture and design still relies on practitioner skill and multiple fittings, a system rife with potential for defects and lengthy waits for amputees.

Starting on Page 28, "A Step in the Right Direction" describes how the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute, Florida State University and others are collaborating to stick a SOCAT (socket optimized for comfort with advanced technologies) into the orthotic and prosthetic industry.

The team uses lightweight, multifunctional materials and advanced manufacturing technologies to design a better way to integrate the prosthetic with its user's body. The new SOCAT offers better fit, comfort, perspiration control and functionality. Patients could wait just a few days before receiving their new limb, as opposed to the current timetable of four to six weeks. Advanced sensors will help practitioners use solid data to fix problems.

Certainly, no mechanical-robotic-computer device can make amputees forget what life was like with a real limb. But by improving and accelerating the process from limb loss to prosthetic, industrial engineers can drastically minimize the discomfort and pain involved.

Michael Hughes is managing editor of IIE. Reach him at mhughes@iienet.org or (770) 349-1110.