1
3
New Legs for Aspiring Champions
READING PDF

Researchers at the University of Tokyo are working with Paralympic athletes in pioneering new 3D-printed prosthetics.

 

by Tim Hornyak

 

Five mornings a week, Saki Takakuwa goes to a track and spends a grueling four hours sprinting an jumping in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. As if that’s not challenging enough, she does it with a prosthetic leg.

 

Takakuwa is setting new standards, using prototype running prosthetics that push the envelope in design and technology. Weighing about two kilograms, each “leg” consists of a 3D-printed socket that’s laced with web-like crimson ridges and a blade forged from layers of carbon fiber, studded with running spikes. “This blade reproduces natural running to a high degree,” says Takakuwa. “The movement is very close to that of a real ankle.”

 

Born in Saitama Prefecture in 1992, Takakuwa was an aspiring, sixth-grade track athlete when she felt a pain in her left leg. Doctors soon discovered a tumor below her left knee, and the diagnosis was tragic: it was bone cancer requiring amputation of the lower leg.

 

Takakuwa didn’t let her disability slow her down. After adapting to an artificial leg for daily use, she tried a sports prosthetic and was surprised by how quickly she could run. Inspired by the writing of Paralympian Mami Sato, whose impassioned presentation helped Tokyo win the 2020 Games, Takakuwa decided to join her high school track and field team and never looked back. She won gold in the 100 meter and the long jump at the Asian Youth Para Games, and placed seventh at the London 2012 Paralympic Games in the 100-meter sprint for her category. She now has her sights on the Tokyo 2020 Games.

 

“As an athlete, I’m looking for a fast prosthetic that can help me win medals in the Paralympics,” says Takakuwa. “But designs that are cool or cute also increase my motivation, and can help change social perceptions of prosthetics.”

 

Takakuwa is collaborating with Professor Shunji Yamanaka, head of the University of Tokyo’s Prototyping & Design Laboratory. An award-winning industrial designer, Yamanaka has created a wide range of slick concepts and commercial products including a luxury sedan, a 35mm film camera and a tabletop humanoid robot. Every day, millions of Tokyo commuters unknowingly use one of his greatest creations, the smart card readers at JR East turnstiles.

 

Visiting Yamanaka’s lab, which he started five years ago, is like entering the workshop of a latter-day Leonardo da Vinci. Tucked into a museum-like structure on the Komaba Campus in Meguro, it’s a hive of students fleshing out concepts on laptop screens. The walls are lined not only with design and architecture books but prosthetics and plastic skulls, a token of how Yamanaka draws inspiration from biology. He has designed the conference table and the ergonomic chairs we’re sitting in as well as several robots and mysterious electromechanical devices littering the space. He even pulls out several panels of a science-fiction manga he illustrated, another example of his fertile imagination. It was a real-life event, however, that motivated him to enter the prosthetics field: the Beijing 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

 

“I’m always thinking about the relationship between artifacts and humans,” says Yamanaka, who began researching prosthetic legs in 2008. “I saw an athlete running at the Games and felt there was a kind of ideal relationship between him and his prosthetic legs. They were joined perfectly to his body and worked perfectly. I wondered how such harmony was possible, and began researching.”

 

While standard, mass-produced prosthetics for everyday activities are widely available to people with impairments in Japan, sports prosthetics are handmade and expensive. Yamanaka met with many prosthetics users to learn about their needs. He saw how the J-shaped blades from an Icelandic manufacturer act like springs, propelling athletes forward while running, noting how they function without trying to look like a natural leg. This functional look is also a key part of Yamanaka’s prosthetic design philosophy.

 

Yamanaka and his collaborators use 3D printers to create the sockets that Takakuwa has been experimenting with. The process begins when nylon powder is deposited as layers, then melted together with a laser. This builds up the material into a resilient structure that’s tough enough to withstand the impact of sprinting and jumping.

 

“If we make these sockets with a 3D printer, we could provide them at low cost to many people,” says Yamanaka. “When this technology is fully established, the computer will actually measure users’ bodies and ensure a proper fitting.” And that could not only help propel sprinter Takakuwa to the finish line, but be a potential life-changer for aspiring Paralympians everywhere.

 

Photo Captions
-Professor Shunji Yamanaka is an award-winning industrial designer who is developing prosthetics for up and coming Japanese Paralympians (top).
-Sketches of the prototype prosthetic and the 3D-printed carbon fiber model, which is strong enough to withstand the effects of sprinting and jumping (center).

SKETCHES COURTESY YAMANAKA LABORATORY, INSTITUTE OF INDUSTRIAL SCIENCE, THE UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO

-Sprinter Saki Takakuwa, who lost her lower leg to cancer, appreciates both the performance and the look of her prosthetic leg (bottom).

RELATED
From Back Streets to Snowy Peaks
An area of Tokyo known for its fine craftsmanship has taken on a daring project that might just wind up on the medal podium of the 2018 Winter Olympics. &nbs...
#PR BOOK#technology
[VIDEO] Going for Excellence, Together
In a historic initiative, Tokyo 2020 organizers ask the public for help in sourcing Olympic and Paralympic medals from “urban mines” of obsolete electronic devi...
#Olympic Paralympics#PR BOOK
Kayabacho
I love sports, and I often go running around my neighbourhood. Since I started running I’ve realised that there is a lot of greenery in Tokyo. The air is clean,...
#Olympic Paralympics
News, insights and stories on cosmopolitan Tokyo
TAG LIST
barrier-free bicycle-friendly business clean city convenient city cultural city design city diversity global city green city Made In Tokyo neighborhood nightlife Olympic Paralympics PR BOOK safe city smart city technology third place Tokyo basics Tokyo Gov SNS tradition transportation travel walkable waterfront
News, insights and stories
on cosmopolitan Tokyo
You might have missed...
  
[VIDEO] A Smooth Ride to the Future
Some new Tokyo buses make a powerful statement that the city is serious about its commitment to being an environmentally...
#PR BOOK#smart city#transportation
Tokyo Celebrates 150 Years of History
2018 marks 150 years since the ancient city of Edo became Tokyo. The city will celebrate with a range of events to forge...
#cultural city#Olympic Paralympics#Tokyo Gov SNS#tradition
Green tea and authentic galleries: Higashi-ginza
In Higashi-ginza, we can enjoy the classy side of Japanese culture by having a cup of matcha (green tea) and wagashi (Ja...
#tradition
Hinohara
Hinohara is perfect for a one day getaway from the city, a mystical place only few hours away from central Tokyo. In the...
#green city#smart city
Eco-friendly Universal Design Streetcars
Don’t let the classic design fool you! These streetcars on the Tokyo Sakura Tram (Toden Arakawa Line)  feature universal...
#smart city#Tokyo Gov SNS#transportation
The Art of Telling Stories on a Solo Stage
A traditional Japanese performing art called rakugo shares glimpses of life with theater goers through tales ranging fro...
#PR BOOK#tradition
Help Mark for Invisible Health Conditions
Many disabilities and health conditions can be invisible to the eye. Tokyo’s Help Mark makes it easier for people who ma...
#diversity#Tokyo Gov SNS
Kinuta Park
Hello. When I first came to Tokyo I was fascinated with the environmentally friendly nature of garbage handling. I alway...
#smart city
Cherishing Edo Expertise
A recent initiative has chosen a select number of traditional companies to enhance Tokyo’s brand with their long history...
#PR BOOK#tradition
  
DISCOVER MORE
MORE