Chris Bratcher is an artisan winemaker from Santa Ynez, California whose right hand was amputated three years ago. Aaliyah Ramos is a mechanical engineering junior at Cal Poly. Together, they’re creating technology that will change Bratcher’s life.
Ramos is a team lead at the Quality of Life Plus (QL+) Lab which makes one-of-a-kind prosthetics for community members of all ages and backgrounds.
QL+ was started by alumnus Jon Monett, who served in the U.S. Air Force and spent 26 years working for the Central Intelligence Agency. After retiring, Monett wanted to give back to service personnel harmed in the line of duty, according to Biomedical Engineering Department Chair Robert Crockett.
“His vision was that we could have a facility that would have Cal Poly engineering students work with individuals on a case-by-case basis, because often every single prosthetic is unique to a single person,” Crockett said.
One of QL+’s early challenges was to develop a way to allow a firefighter with a breathing stoma — a hole in the neck that lets allows breathing after larynx surgery — to use a respirator when fighting fires. According to Crockett, this project epitomized QL+’s mission.
“There just isn’t a product out there like that, because how many firefighters have that condition?” Crockett said.
While at the national level, QL+ caters to veterans and service-people, at Cal Poly the organization works with people in the Central Coast community who have very specific prosthetic needs.
Ramos’ client or “challenger” is Bratcher, who lost his hand in a grape crushing accident in 2014. He’s been seeking a way to perform tasks at the winery ever since.
“We reached out to him and offered him the opportunity to work with us to design and build something that looks closer to what he wants and that will help him with his winemaking,” Ramos said.
Building Bratcher’s prosthetic
The partnership between Bratcher and QL+ began November 2016, when they first met and discussed what his specific needs were. After research, the team determined a myoelectric prosthesis would best suit the winemaker’s needs. The final product will use electrical signals from the muscles in his upper arm to control prosthetic digits.
The prosthetics developed in the QL+ Lab combine hardware and software. This requires people of different disciplines to come together and create innovative designs. There are seven members on Ramos’s team whose specialties include mechanical, biomedical and electrical engineering.
“We split into small groups that took care of different sides of the hand,” electrical engineering sophomore and team member Mavis Tsoi said. “There was a socket group, an electronics and software group and a group for everything above the wrist. This way, we could all utilize our strengths and give the most input to the project based on what our talents are.”
The prototyping process began Winter 2017 after about 15 rounds of designing. Though it was expected to be finished by Spring 2017, Ramos said the team wasn’t ready and the project deadline was pushed to the end of the calendar year.
The prototype the team created will allow Bratcher to point or type with his first finger and hold wine bottles. It even has an opposable thumb. With his old prosthetic, Bratcher couldn’t even hold his phone.
Graphic by Isel Longoria
Bringing a human element to engineering
Bratcher is one of more than 10 challengers selected by the QL+ Lab every quarter. Challengers are nominated by either current club members or people who have heard of the organization. Current projects range from designing an ankle brace for a woman hit by a drunk driver to creating a customized mechanical hand for a six-year-old boy.
“These are people who are experiencing difficult challenges and you would expect that maybe they have kind of a disappointed outlook on life, but in my experience everyone I’ve worked with has been the most positive and encouraging person that I’ve ever met,” QL+ President Berkeley Davis said.
The lab and its challengers bring a human element and local connection to the College of Engineering. According to Crockett, Cal Poly is the perfect environment for a QL+ satellite because of its Learn by Doing philosophy. Team leads and members have the unique opportunity of first-hand experience in the biomedical engineering field as early as their freshman year.
Crockett said one of the most impactful things one can do as an engineer is design something that directly impacts a life and makes it better.
“This myoelectric hand … offers a chance to learn to use individual fingers once again,” Bratcher said. “That’s extremely exciting and I’m honored to be around such a smart, caring group of students.”
Ramos said what drew her to join QL+ her very first quarter at Cal Poly was the hands-on approach to the different, real-life scenarios. She said she looks forward to what’s next after giving Bratcher the final product.
“I think it says it all in the name: we’re reaching out to people and helping them overcome the disabilities they have, literally improving their quality of life,” Ramos said.