Innovation through Collaboration
A good example of the impact of fruitful collaborations between start-ups, research institutes and production companies is the interdisciplinary development process of the Circleg prosthesis. A story about successful collaborations with great innovation potential.
Circleg is a Swiss-East African social enterprise that is developing an appropriate prosthetic leg for people living in low- to middle-income countries. The young start-up pursues a holistic approach, which includes not only a high-quality product but also the establishment of local production according to the principles of circular economy and the development of innovative financing mechanisms. This venture has the potential to positively impact many lives: The World Health Organisation estimates that 35-40 million people worldwide are dependent on prosthetic or orthotic care. Currently, however, only one in ten amputees can afford a prosthetic leg.
Collaboration is the key
Developing a high-quality prosthetic leg and manufacturing it out of recycled plastic in an adapted mass production process is a major challenge. The material and the production method must meet high technical and functional requirements to ensure the long-term use of the prostheses in line with a sustainable production. In addition, the production methods must be adapted to the local context of the countries in which the prostheses will be fitted. In a first step, these will be the East African countries Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. The above-mentioned factors thus lead to a complex problem whose solution requires specific expertise in the field of plastics technology and production on the one hand, and competent partners who are open, flexible, and willing to innovate together. Based on these criteria, the collaboration between Circleg and the Institute of Polymer Engineering at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland and the reinforced plastics production specialist WAG Wernli AG in Gränichen were eventually established.
«We were able to show that a representative structural component of the (Circleg) system can be successfully manufactured by transfer molding using recycled plastics from Kenya enriched with glass fibers.»
The Institute of Polymer Engineering unites a variety of competences that not only lead to academic teaching at Bachelor’s and Master’s level, but also to applied research with industrial partners. The collaboration with Circleg commenced within the framework of a Bachelor’s thesis, in which the various material properties of the recycled plastic from East Africa were analysed and tested. In addition, a selected component of the Circleg prosthesis was manufactured with the long glass fiber-enriched plastic and structurally tested. Under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Christian Rytka, group leader of polymer processing and sustainability, student Simone Battaglia was able to present promising results: «We were able to show that a representative structural component of the (Circleg) system can be successfully manufactured by transfer molding using recycled plastics from Kenya enriched with glass fibers.» These positive results were the basis for the successful further development of the Circleg prosthesis system.
Competence and flexibility
As already mentioned, in addition to the appropriate material characteristics, the production process has a crucial role regarding the quality and effective performance of the product. As a company with a long tradition and a great deal of expertise in the development, testing and production of technical plastic parts, WAG Wernli AG proved to be the ideal partner in this area. The challenge was to manufacture a prosthetic component that had to withstand particularly high stresses and at the same time could be individually adapted to the specific dimensions of the amputees. The development process demanded a great deal of competence and flexibility from the team at WAG Wernli AG, as the circumstances often changed due to the countless iterations.
«Thanks to our proximity to material manufacturers and science, we were able to support Circleg with our expertise throughout the entire innovation process and thus achieve very pleasing results together.»
An intensive and uncomplicated collaboration developed throughout the process from the idea to the tool design to the effective production of the parts. Rafael Wernli, Chairman of the Board of WAG Wernli AG, identifies many positive aspects of such collaborations: «Thanks to our proximity to material manufacturers and science, we were able to support Circleg with our expertise throughout the entire innovation process and thus achieve very pleasing results together». The Circleg team was able to successfully test the production results in a pilot series with amputees in East Africa this year.
This collaboration efforts resulted not only in tangible and useful outcomes but were also enriching for everyone involved throughout the whole process. And moral of the story? Solving complex problems requires the intelligence, experience, and knowledge of different parties. Through these proactive collaborations where everyone learns from one another, true innovation can emerge.