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Graduate designs affordable, innovative new prosthesis

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Getting a product from the drawing board to the shop shelves is notoriously slow and difficult, as Victoria University industrial design graduate Cameron Lightfoot is finding out.

But it hasn't swayed the 27-year-old from his goal of improving life for people who wear a prosthetic leg.

Cameron got thinking about what movement is like for amputees while studying at Victoria. He noticed that most prosthetic legs make walking look difficult and uncomfortable and combined this observation with an interest in magnets to come up with a revolutionary new design.

The device, called NexStep, has super-strong neodymium magnets behind the knee and ankle joints which help kick the leg in and out and make it more flexible.

Most of the parts are made from plastic with steel rods and an aluminium tube for support and they are relatively cheap to produce which, Cameron says, is a big advantage.

"A lot of the cheaper prosthetic legs don't do the job while high-end ones cost tens of thousands of dollars, far more than most people can afford. Part of my motivation was to come up with something really functional at a fraction of the cost of competing products."

The magnets are the key to affordability. "They replace all the complex technology such as batteries, resistors, circuitry and gears that are usually included, bringing both the cost and the maintenance right down."

Cameron's invention was one of the three finalists in the New Zealand stage of the international 2011 James Dyson Awards, with the publicity opening possibilities for commercialising NexStep.

He is in discussions with a potential business partner who has expertise in branding, marketing and sales and is also in touch with a person who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident keen to test his prototype.

"That's significant progress - we know it works in theory but the real proof is in how it performs in practise."

Cameron worked nights and weekends to develop the original design and had the parts made using the rapid prototyping machine at Victoria's School of Design. He has so far met all the costs out of his own pocket and says finance is one of the big hurdles.

But he's not giving up and is continuing to put money earned in his day job as a laser programmer for Mulcahy Engineering in Auckland into further modifying the prosthetic leg.

"I want to make it easy to customise the leg to suit different users. I'm developing a system where the internal components stay the same but the outer casing can be changed depending on a person's leg length and the strength of the magnets required to match the way they walk."

Ultimately Cameron's vision is to set up a small business to sell the prosthetic leg, or license the design to a company with appropriate design and manufacturing expertise.

"I think the most important thing is to believe in your product. You need that to last the distance."

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