Research & development
Product development milestones
A large number of product innovations are the milestones in the success story and, thus, to date an important driver of growth for the medical technology company Ottobock. The entire company history has been shaped by developments that have revolutionised, innovated and moved forward orthopaedic technology. Otto Bock started the company in 1919, launching the first serial production of prosthetic components to supply the large number of World War I veterans. In the 1950s, Ottobock was the first company to use polyurethane plastics to substitute wood, which was a scarce resource then. “Back then, we made a virtue of necessity”, explains Dr.Hans Dietl, Chief Technology Officer (CTO), and thus responsible for the Research and Development division at Ottobock. “Various plastics, or the use of carbon today, allow us to develop products that are ever better and ever more efficient.” The 1960s and 1970s, by comparison, were characterised by two key Ottobock innovations: myoelectrics for upper limb prostheses and the modular system for lower limb prostheses. In myoelectrics, weak electric voltages are utilised that are generated each time a muscle contracts. These are measured by means of electrodes on the skin, amplified by electronics and used as control signals for artificial joints. Modular lower limb prostheses, where the prosthetic foot, knee joint and socket are connected to each other by special adapters, are today's standard in fitting amputees with prostheses. The adjustable connecting element invented by Ottobock in 1969 permits static corrections and allows components to be exchanged. The key patent is a true milestone that changed leg prosthesis fittings around the world. In 1997, Ottobock launched the world's first completely microprocessor-controlled lower limb prosthesis system—the C-Leg. With products like Genium, Michelangelo or C-Brace, Ottobock always sets new standards in the prosthetic care of people with disabilities.
Ingenuity, the courage to blaze new trails and the ability to invest time and money even in long-term research and development projects are, to this day, guarantees of success and ensure the pioneering role of the company in this field.
“Despite all the developments, the quality of a product is always measured by whether or not the user has achieved a better quality of life, more mobility or independence”, stresses Dr.Hans Dietl. Apart from great advances in development, many detail solutions improve the functionality and quality of the company's products in a sustainable manner.
Orthobionics and bionicmobility
Bionics is a scientific method by which technological solutions are designed based on a detailed analysis of nature. However, the goal is not to imitate biological structures one-to-one. Instead, principles are applied to modern technology in order to reproduce natural functions to the greatest extent possible. In the field of medical technology, this is accomplished by bringing products closer and closer to nature’s example.
Ottobock differentiates between Orthobionic (prosthetics and orthotics) and Bionicmobility, which itself can be divided into the product segments Mobility Solutions and Neurorehabilitation. Mobility Solutions include manual or power wheelchairs as well as rehabilitation products for children. The most recent product division, Neurorehabilitation, comprises Functional Electrical Stimulation and Neuroimplants. Both represent therapeutic options, for example, when the neural/cerebral control of muscles has been impaired due to a cerebrovascular accident.
The focus of the MedicalCare business unit is on the customisation of products in the Service Fabrication and on “Planning and Equipping” for equipping workshops and the distribution of machines and materials.
Investment in research & development
Research and development is a source of future growth for the Ottobock group of companies. “Our investment in R&D has been increasing steadily for many years”, says Dr. Hans Dietl. “In 2012, we invested over 40 million euros.” At a share of around seven per cent of sales, the investment in medical technology industry is thus clearly above the average. The over 450 employees in the research and development department are active worldwide in the fields of Prosthetics, Orthotics, Mobility Solutions, Neurostimulation and Patient Care. Around the world, Ottobock has ten development centres of its own. The key locations for new developments and improvements of products are in Duderstadt in Lower Saxony, Germany and in Vienna, Austria. Ottobock is engaged in applied research there, the kind that results in market success over the short or medium term.
Cooperation with research and development centres
When it comes to long-term basic research, Ottobock cooperates with over 50 external cooperation partners around the world. They include universities, universities of applied sciences and research institutes, such as the Fraunhofer and Max Planck Institutes, as well as engineering firms, designers and industrial partners. The only exception from this strategic network of cooperation partners is research into biomechanics. Ottobock does its own basic research in this area at its locations in Göttingen, Vienna, Berlin and Chicago.
Future strategic development projects
In future, Ottobock's main focus in research and development will be on three areas:
The main challenge lies in making available mechatronic solutions for further components for auto-adaptive control. The "electronic intelligence" thus embedded in the product takes the burden off the user, so that the systems can adapt to different conditions and everyday situations automatically.
The second focus comprises the further development of materials. After lightweight design has already been incorporated into many elements, research is being done into combinations of materials that are sufficiently solid and light, while simultaneously storing energy more effectively. A successful example in this segment is the carbon-fibre-based feet.
Another challenge is encountered in the research area of osseointegration, that is, the mounting of prosthesis systems to the long bone via implants. For example, the risk of infection at the site where the skin is penetrated must be minimised by new coating and materials.
Outlook: upper limbs
Targeted Muscle Reinnervation (TMR) is a surgical technique that allows for the intuitive and simultaneous control of myo-prostheses through more than two signals. But with TMR, too, muscles act as a biological amplifier of the nerve pulses, which are conducted via surface electrodes. This is why alternatives are being researched with which it would be possible to bypass the use of surface conduction, susceptible to artifacts, in the signal chain. The goal is to connect implantable electrodes directly with the muscle or nerve fibres in future. This would improve the performance of the upper limb prosthesis and expanding its range of possibilities.
Outlook: lower limbs
With Genium, Ottobock has launched a completely new generation of lower limb prosthesis systems. It simulates, almost perfectly, the natural physiological process of ambulation and supports, to the last detail, the natural movement pattern thanks to state-of-the-art computer, sensor and control technology. What is more, the Genium can be charged in a cordless fashion through induction. “This is precisely where a new field of research has opened up for us”, explains Dr. Hans Dietl. “Apart from the ongoing further development of sensors and processors, we want prostheses in future that can be operated independently, that is, without having to rely on external sources of energy.” This is to be made possible by way of energy-generating elements.
Quality and testing
Prior to releasing a new or modified product, its material and function are subjected to meticulous testing. From raw materials to the finished product, Ottobock has in place a continuous system of quality assurance, which is documented in full. Around the world, Ottobock has its own test laboratories at its research and development sites, with the most modern and largest being located in Duderstadt. The types of tests that a component of a prosthesis has to pass before being released as market-ready are determined by internationally applicable ISO and other standards. In addition to this, Ottobock has developed its own standards at its test laboratories. Thus, components are subjected to at least two million stress cycles as part of testing. Accordingly, if a prosthetic foot is stressed at a frequency of 1 Hertz, the process will take 23 days and nights without interruption. Converted to steps, this would be the equivalent of walking from Lisbon to Warsaw. These tests always focus on the reliability of the product - and thus the safety of the user. As a result, apart from prototypes, random spot checks are also always carried out on products that are already on the market.
Medical studies have been accumulating similar results for years: the emotional acceptance of a device has a major impact on the healing process. The design can make a valuable contribution to this. It is clear to Ottobock that the design demands for medical devices are just as high as those for other industrial products. Already in the very early product development phase, design experts are called in to monitor continuously the further product creation process.
In order to get feedback on this, the company enters renowned, cross-branch design competitions time and again - and with much success. In the years since 2010 alone, Ottobock products have won, among other things, twelve “iF awards”, two of which were Gold, seven “red dot awards” and three “German Design Awards”.