Focal Meditech's robotic arm helps Matthijs master any challenge

Focal Meditech develops assistive technology for the disabled. Their assistive technology lets Matthijs Hamakers lead an independent life. 

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Matthijs Hamakers’ parents realise that their son was a smart little boy who liked to do things his own way when he was just a toddler. So they are not at all surprised that now, as a 25 year old, he is doing well in his course at university, seemingly without effort, and regularly travels the length and breadth of the country to see one of his favourite bands. Even so, what Matthijs does is very special. Because he suffers from a congenital muscle disease, his muscles are very weak. He has never been able to walk. ‘Ordinary’ activities like eating and sitting upright are impossible for him without some kind of assistive tool.

Photo: Peter van Trijen

Assistive technology

These tools all come from Focal Meditech, a Brabant-based company that develops assistive technology for everything from eating and gripping tools to social robotics. They always work in close collaboration with the user. “The tools our customers need are not off-the-shelf items”, says Paul Groenland, who founded Focal in the early 1990s. “Each request for an assistive tool is different. You get the best results if you listen carefully and involve the user every step of the way as you customise the product.” The closer the relationship with the user, the better, he says. And you can safely describe the relationship with Matthijs as close.

Special collaboration

Matthijs was eight when he first came into contact with Focal during a visit with his father and grandfather to Support, an exhibition for disabled people with a limited range of motion. He already had an electric wheelchair at the time. Due to the progressive nature of his illness, his arm function had declined to such an extent that he had difficulty eating. The addition of a Focal Meditech armrest to his wheelchair provided a (temporary) solution by helping him support the weight of his right arm. This marked the start of a special collaboration that continues to this day. Because the company was formerly based in Berkel-Enschot, where Matthijs lived at the time, this collaboration soon became part of daily life. “Focal was close to my primary school,” says Matthijs. “"So when I had a problem with my wheelchair, I went to the workshop to eat my lunch. And they repaired my wheelchair during the lunch hour.”

Photo: Peter van Trijen

Unstoppable drive

Paul Groenland clearly remembers the first time he met Matthijs. “He came to our back door with his assistance dog and I remember thinking: such a young boy with an assistance dog, can he handle all that responsibility?” At the time, Matthijs was in fact the youngest person in the Netherlands with an assistance dog. He had to leave his family for two weeks to build a bond with the animal and practice working together. That he succeeded is typical of his need for independence and his drive to do whatever is necessary to live independently. You see that same drive in the people at Focal who are constantly looking for ‘maximum technology’ solutions to give their customers greater independence and improve their quality-of-life. “You have to be prepared to leap into the unknown”, Paul Groenland says. “To try out new things without knowing whether or not they will succeed. And that also means that you have to be prepared for disappointments. Because sometimes you think that you have found the solution. Only to realise that you need to do more research or apply a different expertise.”

A world of difference

This is what the company does on a continuous basis. Paul Groenland: “We started out as a mechanical engineering company but now also employ software engineers, biomedical specialists, applied physics graduates and paramedics as well as mechanical engineers (for medical devices).” Mechatronics is the name of the field that brings together mechanics, electronics and software development. But, according to Groenland, the focus on the “socio-psychological” aspect, the question of what is important for the individual customer, has played an equally strong part in Focal Meditech’s success. Having a customer like Matthijs is ideal; he knows exactly what he wants and explains his requirements clearly, but is also realistic at the same time. Because technology can do a lot, but not everything. In addition, your solutions have to be affordable. This is a constant challenge for Focal's employees, says Paul Groenland. How do you keep a product affordable without sacrificing possibilities for the individual user? “A small individual adjustment can make a world of difference to our customers.”

Short lines

Back to Matthijs. His second Focal tool is a headrest. A simple one at first, and then an electric model, which he can move up and down and forwards and backwards with simple controls. At his request, Focal Meditech has made this headrest tiltable and is now integrating this feature as part of the standard range. “I asked them if they could make something that would lift my chin a little to make eating easier”, Matthijs explains. “They immediately started working on that challenge.” And that is how it has been from the outset. “I come up with a problem and we look for a solution together. Normally, I talk directly to the people responsible for producing the solution: a programmer in the case of software issues, or a mechanical engineer when a (new) device is involved.” Matthijs is convinced that these short lines of communication will improve the tools and adaptations. And the lines of communication remain short, even though Focal Meditech - which has been in Tilburg for ten years now - has grown enormously. Matthijs: “If something breaks, I still go to the workshop for a day. I have known the people there for so long, so it's like getting together with friends.” 

Clear idea of the requirement

Focal is currently redeveloping the headrest system. Paul Groenland: “Our innovations often start out as a small pilot project. In most cases, the issues we face have hardly been researched. We have to get a clear idea of the requirement before we can look for a possible solution. Difficult issues are discussed in a multidisciplinary meeting. That’s when we decide whether to start a project and involve partners like Eindhoven University of Technology, Twente University, Maastricht University or Roessingh Rehabilitation Technology.”

Over the years, Matthijs' wheelchair has been upgraded to include a ventilator and a control system. This system not only gives Matthijs full control of the chair itself, he can also use it to control his environment, i.e. opening the doors in his home. As you listen to him enthusiastically telling you about everything his wheelchair can do, you tend to forget that each new tool means that his disability has worsened. His mother Saskia admits that facing that fact each time is quite difficult. “But”, she quickly adds, “in our family, we always look at what is possible, and not what is not (or no longer) possible. I think that is why Matthijs has come this far.”

Photo: Peter van Trijen

“I only feel handicapped when I have to do without my robotic arm.”

Jaco robotic arm

Saskia is extremely proud of her son, who is now studying for a master's degree in neuropsychology at the University of Maastricht and is doing an internship in Leuven. That he is so independent is mainly thanks to his most recent tool from Focal Meditech: the Jaco robotic arm. He has had this arm for six years now. “I can overcome every challenge with my robotic arm. In the past, I always had to ask someone to press a doorbell or lift button for me. Now I can do that myself.” Going to a concert in Paradiso, visiting his grandparents in Bergen aan Zee: Matthijs does not need anybody’s help. “I can manage.”

Confidence

The robotic arm is the result of a collaboration project between Focal Meditech and Kinova in Canada, a University of Montreal spin-off company. Focal developed seven different arm control systems, all of which can be adapted to the abilities, skills and needs of the user. “Taking our users’ requirements into account: that is where we excel”, says Paul Groenland. Matthijs has unshakeable confidence in his robotic arm. “I use it to rub my eye, stretch out my arm and even use it to relieve stress in my neck. I still do new things with it every day, things that I have never done before.” Cutting a price tag off a toy for his dog, for example. “I used my robotic arm to take the kitchen scissors out of the knife block, inserted the robotic fingers in the scissors and snipped off the price tag. It takes a while, but you get the job done eventually.”

Matthijs particularly notices how important his tools are to him when he has to do without them for a while. Like the time when he stood in the rain at Pinkpop for several hours and his robotic arm ‘drowned’. “Focal Meditech pulls out all the stops to get everything working properly again. They know that I only feel handicapped when I have to do without my robotic arm.”

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