"This time, it looks a lot more promising."
It’s been referred to as a Segway with legs. And it’s one more step toward a dream come true for hundreds of thousands of paraplegic individuals who want to get out of their wheelchair and walk on their own. The Vanderbilt University designed exoskeleton is a mechanical device, worn from the mid-section down, with highly sophisticated motion control sensors that can help someone with a spinal cord injury walk again. Those in the disabled community may ask: is this just another false hope, a one-of-a-kind prototype? They’ve seen and heard of similar robotic devices for years, but nothing has been made available for the average consumer to try, let alone purchase. Currently, the Argo Medical Technologies ReWalk is reported to be available, but it’s bulky design and price tag ($100-$140k+) make it unrealistic as a mass-produced consumer product. The Japanese version (trade named HAL5) is unavailable in the United States. The UC Berkley Ekso Bionics design is still in production – and will initially go out to only a handful of rehabilitation centers for testing. This time though, it looks a lot more promising. An Ohio-based leader in technology solutions with $13.14 billion in sales revenue and 58,000 global employees is determined to make it happen.
Vanderbilt University recently licensed its exoskeleton robotic-like walking aid to industrial giant Parker Hannifin, known world-wide for its hydraulic and fluid control equipment. But that’s not all they do. The company’s 2012 Annual Report boldly exclaims they are “The global leader in motion and control technologies.” So who better to make a mobility miracle happen? Parker already had a medical systems division, which may have led to their decision to take on the commercialization of the exoskeleton product. But according to sources, that only played a small part. A few years ago, Parker Hannifin President/CEO Donald Washkewicz challenged his staff to think outside the box. He wanted them to utilize Parker's vast knowledge of motion controls to bring new hi-tech products to market, and not just for industrial use. The exoskeleton fit that challenge, with significant ramifications to the end user. Nothing could be as exciting – or as important.
Parker’s involvement with the product greatly enhances the prospect of the Vanderbilt Exoskeleton design becoming a commonly-used device in years to come. With Parker's extensive supply chain and manufacturing experience, the slimmed down Vanderbilt exoskeleton design (still to be named) could potentially be in a price range that people can actually afford – with some financial assistance from insurance providers and the VA (for veterans).
The MobilityWorks Exoskeleton Connection
With Parker Hannifin being headquartered in Cleveland Ohio, only a short 30 minute drive north on Rt. 8 and I-271 from our Akron headquarters, we are hoping to develop a relationship with them to showcase the exoskeleton in years ahead. Our MobilityWorks of Nashville store also works with Vanderbilt University’s OT/PT program to help train new driver rehabilitation specialists in mobility equipment and is an active supporter of Vanderbilt's Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital. We also work closely with the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in rehabilitation for people with a spinal cord injury – where much of the exoskeleton's testing with patients took place. With these relationships, perhaps we will have a Parker Hannifin exoskeleton demonstrated at a future Mobility Expo. Stay tuned!
Editor's note: the exoskeleton was designed by Dr. Michael Goldfarb at Vanderbilt University. To read more about his work on the exoskeleton, go to https://www4.vanderbilt.edu/vise/viseprojects/vanderbilt-exoskeleton/.