AUSTIN, TEXAS — A year ago, U.S. Paralympics medalist Blake Leeper challenged members of the design community to help develop improvements to prosthetics.
Engineering and design specialists at Altair Thinklabs soon stepped up along with Eastman Chemical Co., and in just a few months they have already developed prototypes that would not just help Leeper shave time off his sprints, it also could help produce a better, more affordable athletic prosthetic for other amputees.
“Blake is an elite athlete, but we now have other concepts that could help the other 99 percent out there,” said Craig Mackiewicz, industrial design manager for Altair, at the Industrial Designers Society of America annual conference, held Aug. 13-16 in Austin. “We've been looking at other materials, like a fiberglass rather than carbon fiber to reduce costs.”
In addition to providing an update at this year's IDSA conference, Altair and Eastman are hosting a Sept. 10 webinar to discuss the project.
Leeper, who was born without lower legs, uses carbon fiber blades to compete in the 100 meter, 200 meter and 400 meter sprints and the 4-by-100 sprint relay. Since his first race in 2009, he has won a silver medal and a bronze medal at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, and gold and silver in other international competitions. He was part of a record-setting relay team in 2013.
His goal is not just to compete in the Paralympic games in Brazil in 2016, but to represent the U.S. during the standard Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, competing against able-bodied athletes. To do that, he needs to shave about 4 seconds off his time in the 400-meter race.
Leeper grew up in Kingsport, Tenn., and Kingsport-based Eastman was an early supporter, bringing its expertise in materials to the table and giving him an early platform to address the public.
Altair brings with it not only product design capabilities, but extensive expertise in engineering and prototyping, with the ability to test Leeper's existing blades for performance and strength, but also do virtual testing of concepts.
“I am the only Olympian or Paralympian with a team like this,” Leeper said. “There's nothing else out there like this.”