A team, a treadmill -- and fewer falls for the elderly

There’s a little bit of Chris Coulter in the new ActiveStep treadmill, a high-end machine with a social purpose: helping users learn how to handle a slip or trip without falling.

There’s a little bit of Geoff Clark in the new ActiveStep, too. And a bit of Amaris Ajamil, and of Ted Jones, and of 15 or so more of their colleagues -- about half the staff at Simbex, a Lebanon-based product design and development company that specializes in building sophisticated medical devices and helping others bring their ideas to market.

The new ActiveStep in testing at Simbex.

“It takes a village,” said Coulter -- or what Simbex calls an X team, a collection of co-workers with the assortment of specialized skills required to bring a complex machine like ActiveStep into being. The company describes itself as a matrix organization -- a structure that allows its 40 engineers to apply their varied skills dynamically on multiple projects.

The soul of a new machine!

Clark is a mechanical engineer who rethought and laid out the components that drive the new version of the treadmill. Jones is a software engineer who wrote the programming that translates sensor readings into a usable display. Ajamil, who has a doctorate in bioengineering, made sure the machine meets safety requirements and is properly tested -- the stage it’s at now.

Coulter -- the project manager -- coordinated their efforts and those of others on the team: setting priorities, keeping work on track and on schedule, deciding when to say no to an idea that might take too much time or deliver too little in value.

“I sort have a rule of thumb where there’s no such thing as a small change,” Coulter said.

Simbex introduced ActiveStep 10 years ago. It’s a sophisticated teaching tool: a treadmill with sensors that measure a user’s gait and upper body position as the treadmill starts and stops to simulate a slip or a stumble. (It’s okay; the user is supported by a safety harness.)

Here’s how the engineers describe it: “The sensors help to create event triggered perturbations (eTrip) using pressure sensors to determine heel or toe position for when to realistically initiate a trip. Also, inertial measurement units (IMU) are used to measure angular position and velocity (a value that determines if you would have fallen or recovered).”

And here’s how it looks in testing:

Researchers use ActiveStep to understand how to prevent falls, and clinicians use it to train people whose age or condition puts them at risk to keep their balance. It’s an important goal: Falls are the leading cause of injury-related death among people over 65.

There are 20 ActiveSteps in use, including one at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. The redesign came about because components used in the initial version were no longer available. That need created an opportunity to improve on its looks and performance while reducing and simplifying components to control costs.

The team came together last spring, and sent a working, updated version out the door for testing in January. Every member of the team was juggling at least one other project at the same time; that’s how Simbex goes about its business. That’s an uncommon approach, team members said.

“I’ve worked at companies where people work on the same product for 10 years,” said Jones.

Making an ad-hoc team succeed takes careful coordination around weekly “sprint” gatherings -- that was Coulter’s job -- and dynamic, free-flowing communication.  “We’re in an open office environment,” he said, “so you’ll frequently hear an engineer yell out to another, ‘What was the tolerance on that part?’ … Sometimes there’s impromptu hallway meetings.”

Along the way, for the people who work on it, the machine becomes something more than the sum of its parts. “I know what it’s doing almost,” said Ajamil. “I can debug it just by using it, and not even looking in the code.”

The new version features a more rounded look.

As difficult as it can be to accept something less than perfection -- they’re engineers, after all -- there’s also a sense of pride in taking something that’s already good and making it measurably better: “much easier to work on,” Clark said, “much easier to put together.”

And knowing the difference their efforts will make in hospitals, labs and clinics brings its own reward.

“I like the fact that the product will help people in the end, the idea of being able to reduce falls,” Coulter said. “It’s a worthwhile product to be working on. Essentially that’s what drives me. It drives a lot of the people at Simbex. We’re not just working on technology products. We’re working on products that really make a difference in people’s lives.”

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(You're wondering who is in the photo atop this post, aren't you? These ActiveStep team members are: Top row, left to right: Geoff Clark, Nick Conquest, Ted Jones, and George Pfeiffer, Bottom row, left to right: Amaris Ajamil, Chris Coulter, Dave Eypper, and Evart Fairman.)


This post was written by Mark Travis for Story Kitchen Creative, which created the Tech Valley blog. It is published under the auspices of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce and paid for by the City of Lebanon.


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