Work-Centric Prosthetics

By Marcia Faye
Work-Centric Prosthetics
Michael Morley (BME ’08) observes Helcias Rubio using the prosthetic tool Morley designed to help the carpenter return to work after severing his fingers in an accident.
Photo: Michael Morley

“To say that he’s passionate about his prosthetics projects is a real understatement; I just stand back and try to get out of the way,” says Kevin Meade (MAE ’74, M.S. AMAT ’78), professor of mechanical engineering at IIT Armour College of Engineering, about former student Michael Morley (BME ’08). “It’s been a learning experience for me.”

That’s no small statement coming from the faculty member who was at the forefront of orthotics and prosthetics education in Colombia. Meade also taught the Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program course—Orthotics and Prosthetics Education for Latin America and the United States—that fueled Morley’s desire to design affordable and simple but well-engineered prosthetics. Morley’s experiences in Colombia provided focus for his career shift from medicine to biomedical engineering.

“I became really excited about the future of medicine—the different technologies coming out for stem cell engineering, biomechanics, robotics, prosthetics, and microchip diagnostics,” says the high-energy Morley, a senior engineer with EPIR Technologies, Inc., over lunch at a Bolingbrook, Ill., restaurant. He recalls his “aha! moment,” which occurred while working at a prosthetics clinic in Bogotá as an international Whitaker Fellow. “I didn’t want to be someone implementing the latest technologies; I wanted to be someone who was developing them,” he explains.

Born into a British family largely employed in construction management, Morley had observed various types of occupational injuries during his childhood. So, in 2009, when he met carpenter Helcias Rubio in Colombia who had severed all four fingers of his right hand with a band saw and had been on welfare for more than two years, Morley felt as though he were standing on familiar ground.

“The insight Michael had was to make a prosthetic tool that is adapted in such a way that makes it easier for the patient to use carpenter’s tools; it’s not a tool to attach to the end of a prosthetic limb,” explains Meade about the non-jointed, simple device, which was featured in the March 2013 issue of Popular Mechanics. “The bottom line is that the patient was able to return to work as a carpenter—quite a significant accomplishment.”

Besides providing Morley with great personal satisfaction, his successful and low-cost design earned him a perfect score on his master’s thesis at Colombia’s Universidad de los Andes. It also sparked a subsequent project: the creation of IPRO 350—ProSolutions: Prosthetic Solutions for the Working World, which he and Meade co-taught.

After developing the design for the hand tool, Morley wanted to see what vision his students had for further developing his concept of affordable, uncomplicated, back-to-work prosthetics.

“The class came up with new designs and the concept of self-moldable fitting as a means of improving accessibility,” says Morley. “The second semester, they set up the nonprofit company PALS at Work™, applied for different grants, and won a national contest in Colombia. During the third semester, they built more product awareness by working the social media aspect and exploring crowd funding. This fall’s agenda will be focused on performing clinical trials, registering the finalized device with the FDA, and focusing on small-scale production.”

The course won the IIT Stuart School of Business Dean’s Choice Award at the Spring 2013 IPRO Day held on April 26. Morley will continue to remain active in PALS as a board member but has already become involved in new endeavors. In June, he taught a ProSolutions course at the Universidad de los Andes that is much like IPRO 350. In July, Morley and fellow members of the International Space Station (ISS) Utilization Committee will meet in Denver to help select ISS research priorities and projects.

After flying back to Illinois in August to be best man at the wedding of his best friend, Ray Ballard (CHE ’10), Morley will begin studies at Stanford Graduate School of Business to focus on technology innovation. He will continue with EPIR as a consultant and carve out some time for salsa dancing—another talent he developed in Colombia.

Morley barely pauses to take the last bites of his salad as he describes other projects—his role in securing EPIR’s place in a technological food safety consortium with IIT Institute for Food Safety and Health, and the proposals he is writing with Matthew Spenko, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, on utilizing flying robots in military and industrial applications. While Morley is constantly seeking ways to build partnerships among all of his constituencies, he will remain true to the roots of his prosthetics passion.

“By minimizing the complexity of prosthetics, which I see as being a very [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe ‘less is more’ philosophy,” says Morley, acknowledging the master planner of IIT Main Campus, “we can have very strong and simple aids for a few dollars that get people back to work.”

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PALS at Work Crowd-Funding:

“Hand Prosthesis Empowers Carpenter to Reclaim Career”: