University of York
Protolabs supports scientific research in infant development through Consultative Design, 3D Printing and Injection Moulding Services
When Associate Professor Elena Geangu from the Psychology Department at University of York and her interdisciplinary team of psychologists, engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians heard they’d been successful in securing funding for the development of their concept piece, the EgoActive platform, there was cause for celebration.
The EgoActive platform was their ground-breaking concept for a compact monitoring system with heart sensor and head-mounted camera that could offer the scientific community a unique opportunity to record and evaluate a baby’s interaction with the world within their natural surroundings, rather than in an artificial laboratory or clinical setting.
This work is incredibly important. Studying babies in their natural environment gives us insight into how the human brain matures and how we develop to be the adults we are and the way that we function. This information can be used for practical purposes, such as helping us to understand what happens if development doesn’t follow a typical pattern - the study of different disorders and what factors in the natural environment may have contributed to get to this outcome. This knowledge can be applied to a wide range of disorders, for instance, children who develop anxiety disorders, conduct disorders, autism, and other different cognitive impairments. As well as treating disorders, this information can also be used to inform educational practices. It tells us how we can educate our children more effectively so that they have more adaptive life experiences and ultimately have better outcomes in many aspects of life, including education, social interactions, and career.
An opportunity for funding to take the EgoActive platform from concept to creation came in the form of Wellcome Leap’s prestigious First 1000 days (1kD) programme. The aim of 1kD is to identify and support the most auspicious infant development research projects to successfully deliver a greater understanding of a child’s neurocognitive development within the first 1000 days of life.
Open to scientists across the globe, competition to get on board the $45 million 1kD programme is fierce. Hundreds of research groups applied, but only ten projects were successful – the team behind the EgoActive platform, led by University of York (and involving collaborations with Newcastle University and Queen Mary University of London) was one of them.
However, there was no time for Elena and her team to rest on their laurels. With just a 12-month timeframe in which they had to create the EgoActive platform from scratch, suddenly the clock was ticking.
Elena Geangu, Associate Professor, University of York
|At A Glance
To support the development of casing parts for the EgoActive platform, a compact head-mounted camera integrated with a heart activity sensor for infants and young children.
The EgoActive project team contacted Protolabs to support the design and manufacture of the parts through Protolabs’ Consultative Design Service (CDS), 3D printing and injection moulding
Protolabs worked with the EgoActive project team to iterate the designs through PolyJet and Multi Jet Fusion additive manufacturing technologies, before moving on to injection moulding approximately 3500 units of 13 different parts. The device has since garnered the interest of the relevant scientific community, potentially leading to further collaborations between research teams.
The platform needed to consist of integrated wireless wearable sensors for capturing infant egocentric auditory-visual statistics and autonomic nervous system function ‘in the wild’ – i.e. a child’s natural environment.
Elena and her team first began by looking at off-the-shelf devices, but soon realised this route was not feasible due to existing equipment not being suited to young children; nor was it suited to a project that had a research scope. Therefore, they needed manufacturing support to address the limitations of existing equipment and make the EgoActive platform suitable for conducting research outside of a laboratory setting.
The team were able to bring their extensive expertise in conducting research in the areas of developmental psychology and neuroscience, computer science, mathematics and statistics, as well as biomedical engineering. But there remained a gap in the expertise required for the project. They needed the engineering, prototyping and manufacturing expertise to help bring the concept to fruition.
As Elena explains, “My team had experience working with biomedical engineers, but not with engineers that have the kind of expertise that Protolabs has. We had an idea of how the design should look based on our experimental trials, but we needed external support to help take the incipient prototype to a design level where it could be professionally manufactured. We had the characteristics of the electronics and the elements contained within the devices, but when it came to the casings, we didn’t know what was best in terms of the materials or expertise around how to design to the minutest of details.
“The project wasn’t without its challenges because the wearable devices are for babies, so we needed to make sure the casings were right in terms of design and material, due to it being in direct contact with the infants’ delicate skin and fragile body. In addition, the devices had to be very lightweight, comfortable and unobtrusive so that the babies would be largely unaware they were wearing them. Also, we had an extremely tight deadline, which meant needing to rely on fast-moving support.”
This is where Protolabs comes into the story, as Elena continues:
“In my search, I wanted somewhere fairly local where I could visit in person and discuss the requirements, as this is a very important product and I find it easier to work this way. I came across Protolabs and got in touch. From the beginning I had a great experience. Shay Mason, my first point of contact, put me in touch with design engineers Dom Corpuz and Tom Rowland in Protolabs’ Consultative Design Service. They were lovely to interact with and knowledgeable. They immediately put me at ease and we ultimately ended up working together on the project.”
Protolabs’ Consultative Design Service (CDS) is complementary to the company’s injection moulding service. Whilst their automated quoting platform provides helpful manufacturability feedback, the additional consultancy service is suited to when a project requires more critical thinking; engineering experience to support more complex considerations around manufacturability, such as that demanded by Elena and her team.
Dom Corpuz, one of the Protolabs’ Application Engineers, continues the story, “Working with Elena and her team was a pleasure, but it was clear that time was of the essence, so we got to work quickly to find our way through the design and manufacturing process. Ultimately, a total of thirteen parts were manufactured to produce assemblies for the two main components of the platform: the head-mounted camera, and the heart activity sensor. The parts we made essentially act as a carrier or casings for all the electronic hardware needed for the two components.”
For the initial design verification, PolyJet 3D Printing Silicone was used to create the head mounted camera casing band and Multi Jet Fusion using PA 11 for the casings of both the head mounted camera and the body sensor. This was an essential first step because 3D printing allowed the team to verify design fit and mechanical behaviour of the parts in a low-cost way before investment in tooling for injection moulding. In fact, the process enabled the team to conveniently iterate their way through a number of design adjustment before going into production, particularly as many of the materials used in Protolabs’ additive manufacturing are the same, or behave in the same way, as many of the relevant materials available for injection moulding.
For the heart activity sensor, Polypropelene (PP) was selected as it needed to be as thin as possible – requiring an easy flowing material in the mould. The headband consisted of two materials: PP and Liquid Silicone Rubber (LSR). The LSR was selected to allow the headband to gently bend around the child’s head whilst maintaining its shape, but to also provide electrical and heat insulating properties. LSR was also crucial for providing comfort for the infant wearer, which would be vital to ensure successful research!
Dom explains, “The main challenge was to take the initial 3D printed design and adapt it for injection moulding, particularly with the head-mounted camera band. The initial design started as a two-part assembly, but we had to rethink the part configuration to meet the customer’s requirements and still be within moulding capabilities. Quite a lot of attention went into the parts’ re-design to ensure Elena and her team were happy with the design whilst still being manufacturable. With our Consultative Design Service, we were able to support this all the way through the project until everyone was happy with moving the project on to injection mould tooling. But this is typical of product design development, so we are very much used to this process.”
Ultimately, between 200 and 500 of each part was injection moulded – a relatively small production number for the process, but suitable for what is currently a non-commercial research project.
Thanks to the collaboration with Protolabs, EgoActive platform is now no longer a concept but a manufactured product. It’s a vitally important tool that changes how scientists can assess, study and promote healthy brain development. By removing the limitations of the lab, the EgoActive platform opens up exciting new opportunities for research into the early cognitive development of humans in their natural environment.
As such, it was important to disseminate the findings of the project to the scientific community by publishing a paper. Elena was keen to publish via an open access platform so that the results could be read free of charge by everyone, including members of the public, rather than in a scientific journal shielded by a pay wall.
It's testament to the importance and success of the project that Elena and her team’s write up of the findings was rigorously reviewed and accepted for publication in the prestigious Sensors journal, an open access scientific platform. And again, Elena was grateful to Protolabs for their help with this achievement; delighted that Dom and Tom had gone the extra mile by contributing their engineering expertise to explain the technical aspects of the design and materials of the casing.
The paper is now live and being shared amongst the scientific community, and it has generated a lot of interest in the EgoActive platform.
As Elena explains, “Now that the paper has been published, many scientists have asked us whether they can have the EgoActive platform for their research. We know that scientists and practitioners really need these devices, so we have to figure out a way to distribute them. Our aim is to distribute the EgoActive platform within the relevant academic and professional communities with the aim of helping rather than making a profit. We just need to find the best way of doing this. This type of initiative is at the core of University of York’s principles – a university for the public good. It seeks to promote collaboration beyond disciplinary boundaries, and with diverse people and entities from across society, in order to generate research synergies for lasting benefit to the society at large.”
Currently, the EgoActive Platform is being used by the University of York to collect the data from many families in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and in York, UK. Both the babies and their mothers are wearing the devices at different points in time throughout the first year of life to find out how the characteristics of the natural environment contribute to how the mind develops and changes over time. The study will also allow the team to understand whether a specific pattern of development is specific to certain culture or if development follows a universal pattern, characteristic to infants worldwide.
Only time will tell what exciting breakthroughs there will be in the study of the human brain and mind development thanks to the launch of the EgoActive platform. And Protolabs will be there to support any future development of the product.
“I was delighted to discover Protolabs,” says Elena. “The team were incredibly enthusiastic, curious and ready to take on the challenge. I appreciated how they were always happy to share ideas and help drive the project forward. I’ve very much enjoyed working with them to create the EgoActive platform and I think over the next couple of years there will be further collaboration with Protolabs as we develop and distribute the product. I look forward to working with Protolabs again on this and possible future projects.”
About the Wellcome Leap First 1000 days (1kD) programme:
Wellcome Leap’s 1kd funding programme makes clear how important it is that we all understand more about how our brains develop from birth: “We all know what a difference a day makes. The first 1000 days can make all the difference to a child’s start in life, perhaps more so than we ever understood before. In this early period, we develop critical cognitive abilities, such as executive function (EF) and self-regulation. By the end of the first 1000 days, a child’s individual EF performance changes their odds of dealing successfully with opportunities and obstacles they face in life. Well-developed EF improves a child’s chances for lifelong physical, neural, and mental health; reduces the pace of aging; and underpins greater productivity and prosperity. Indeed, if EF is underdeveloped it has significant consequences. We know that children with underdeveloped EF at age 3 represent about 20 percent of the population, but make up nearly 80 percent of adults who are likely to require some form of societal or economic assistance.”