Building Better Braces

By Matt Hawkins
July 9, 2015

Form-fitting internal fixation plates may one day replace uncomfortable plates and screws as a common surgical fix for broken bones, and a team of Bradley students hopes to be at the forefront of that innovation as they developed a process to make custom ankle plates.

The innovation, which is one of three convergence projects this year, brought together senior business and engineering students to research, design and market the braces for Peoria-based Dental Arts Laboratories. If the product and procedure find a niche in medicine, a range of surgical procedures could become easier for surgeons, cheaper and less painful for patients.

Students created a process by which plates are built from models created from CT scans or MRIs of patients. Custom-made pieces would replace the “suitcase of parts” supply of standardized parts surgeons have to fit onto patients.

“It’s a great product to put in the market,” said Gerardo de la Torre, a mechanical engineering major from Dunlap, Illinois. “You wouldn’t spend money on storage, parts or extra time. Hopefully every device will eventually be customizable.”

By uniting business and engineering minds, convergence projects force students to see concepts from new perspectives. This uncomfortable territory builds leadership and teamwork abilities as engineering students learned product promotion and business students learned product development.

“We can get in our bubbles where others don’t understand our terminology,” de la Torre said. “In the real world, we’ll have to make sure others understand us because we’ll be talking to people with different backgrounds who don’t know our technical language.”

For the business majors, the collaborative project helped them fine-tune research and sales pitches.

“I would not have known what to ask customers about the product without the engineering students' help,” said Jordyn Shawhan, a business management major from Peoria. “If you are trying to research/market a product, you have to understand the product. Collaboration is essential for research and marketing so we can provide the best service to our clients or customers.”

With this project, students also stood on the edge of the growing biomedical field. That exposure added an adventurous layer to the experiential learning opportunity.

“They’re looking at a specific application that’s never been done before,” said mechanical engineering professor Dr. Kalyani Nair. “That includes a lot of research they never would do in the classroom. As a result, they become more independent researchers and decision-makers. They come up with the designs and functional prototypes. This is a very real-world experience.”