Dear Colleagues,

A few weeks ago, I stupidly broke my right wrist (on a beach!) and a few years ago my ankle. Fortunately, after a few plates and screws all is well with no actual loss of a limb.

The purpose of this note is decidedly not to look for sympathy but to talk about the exploding opportunities for engineering professionals working in the field of prosthetics where loss of a limb is the focus.

What is a prosthesis?
A prosthesis, prosthetic, or prosthetic limb is a device that replaces a missing body part. It is part of the field of biomechatronics, the science of using mechanical devices with human muscle, skeleton, and nervous systems to assist or enhance motor control lost by trauma, disease, or defect. Prostheses are typically used to replace parts lost by injury (traumatic) or missing from birth (congenital) or to supplement defective body parts (thanks Wikipedia).

Thousands of new amputees every day
Each day, thousands of people around the world undergo an operation to amputate one or more of their limbs. For example, in the USA, almost two million Americans live with the loss of a limb. Causes of loss of limbs are not only due to trauma or accident but illnesses and cancer. And naturally, military action (although this is a very small component).

The rapidly growing field of prosthetics provides many solutions to those who have lost limbs.

The Feel-good profession
Some have called the field of prosthetics, the ‘feel-good’ profession as it can enable those who have lost limbs to recover much mobility and to operate on an equivalent level to a standard functioning human.

Modern prosthetic devices are highly computerised with microprocessors, sensors and actuators to provide human-like functionality. Experiments are starting to yield brilliant results in interpreting what an amputee actually wants to do with her limb using implants.

How does an engineering professional enter this fast growing field?
There are generally no specific education programs to train engineering professionals in this area. Most people come from a mechanical engineering background; and to a lesser degree also from electrical engineering and software programming. It is vital to know about electromechanical systems, anatomy and physiology and to understand the psyche of an amputee. A slight complication is that the field is quite an inexact science requiring customization to a particular individual and this may drive the more ‘precise’ engineering professional into a frenzy as a result.

Many engineering professionals got their entry into the field by volunteering.

Engineers working in this area have a pretty well 100% employment rate. In fact, there is a growing shortage of expertise in this area.

So think of working in this area if you are looking to put something back into the engineering profession, work at the boundaries of engineering and medical science and to help humanity. Such is the degree of satisfaction working in the area that there are few who enter the field and who leave it.

Thanks to John R. Platt of the IEEE for an excellent article on prosthetics.

It is good to recall John W. Gardner’s comment when dealing with seemingly massively challenging problems: 'We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems'.

Yours sincerely