Title: Engineering Manager
Company: Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), Center for Bionic Medicine
Years with company: 4.5 years
- With two young boys interested in engineering, Jim spends a lot of time helping run robotics camps and teams.
- Jim knew he wanted to be an engineer ever since his dad took him to see the movie, “The Right Stuff” as a kid.
- At the RIC, Jim works on developing prosthetic systems that serve a greater majority of the population than prosthetics currently available.
What are some of your responsibilities at the RIC?
I manage a team of seven engineers, four of which are mechanical while the other three are electrical. Together we develop next generation rehabilitation devices and technologies. Our primary focus is on upper and lower limb prosthetics. RIC functions as a clinical institute with research labs that we help to support through device development. The research studies take place both here and in the homes of subjects. My team operates as an embedded product development group within RIC. We help to build robotic arm systems and control systems, specifically the electronics and software algorithms that go into them.
What’s your favorite part of your current job and why?
The most rewarding part of my job is seeing people try out new technologies we develop and have a favorable response to them. You can actually see these devices have the potential to benefit their lives. Another thing that I love about my job is that we get to make and play with a lot of different prototypes, which is like playing with cool toys for me.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Arriving at an agreement with everyone that has a stake in what you’re doing in terms of what you want to do and what you need to say no to. I think that’s true of engineering in general. If you look at any project it tends to be a collection of a lot of little things, any of which would be easy to do, but all of which is impossible to do. You end up doing the things that are fun and technically challenging, but the most important decisions you make are the things you say no to.
What is one of the most exciting projects you’ve worked on in the past?
When I started at RIC we were launching a project to develop a complete robotic arm system for upper limb amputees. It is size appropriate for the average 12-year-old child. Most of the prosthetic systems on the market right now are too big for about 60 percent of the population. In order to develop this arm system we created custom motor electronics and transmissions in addition to building four complete generations of prototypes.
Right now it is going to field-testing. Two research subjects are using the system as their everyday prosthetic. It has been really exciting to see that project go from being a clean sheet of paper to a device that people are using and testing.
What would you say is one of the most common misconceptions about prosthetics and robotics among the general public?
That a robotic arm can replace someone’s arm and become an extension of their body. Because robotic systems have gotten to the point where they look realistic and can be controlled in a very intuitive way, I think there is a misperception that they become an extension of the human body, which is not the case.
Do you think robotic systems will ever get to a point where they can serve as a true replacement instead of an extension?
There are fundamental questions we still need to understand before we can answer that question. We know how to control arm systems, but we still need to find a good way of giving people proprioceptive feedback, which is control that comes almost exclusively through seeing what a device does.
Right now people using the systems don’t get feedback similar to the touch we have as humans where if you close your eyes and bend your elbow, you know what position your arm is in. Even the forward control we have is very crude relative to how you control your arm. Until we get better at developing technologies that give people that proprioceptive feedback, I don’t think we will understand how far we can take the technology.
Is there a time you can point to and say, “That’s when I knew I wanted to become an engineer?”
When I was about 12 my dad took me to see the movie “The Right Stuff,” which documents the inception of the space program and extends all the way up until the Apollo program. There is a sequence of scenes in which NASA engineers test rocket prototypes. All of them end up failing in a spectacular fashion. What really jumped out at me from that movie were the engineers. Sometimes they would look discouraged or curious, but they always tried to build another rocket.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
I love the combination of things I get to do. Not only do I tackle really challenging design problems, but I also work with a great group of people that come from very diverse backgrounds.
From where do you draw inspiration? Are there any companies or individuals that you look up to?
I really like what Apple and Tesla do with their product development. They both have a very narrow focus that allows them to prioritize what is most important. They’re very disciplined in that respect.
I’ve also been completely enamored with NASA since the 1960s. Building a rocket and taking astronauts to the moon and back in the time period that they did is probably the greatest engineering accomplishment in our history.
Fill in the blank. If I couldn’t be an engineer, I would be a “______________.”
A teacher at either the high school or college level, which is funny considering the fact that the teachers that had the biggest influence on me in high school tended to be in the humanities, specifically in English.
What does being successful mean to you?
Enjoying and being rewarded by how you spend your time both at work and outside of it.
How do you spend your time outside of work?
I spend a lot of time raising my two boys who are starting to get into robotics. I’m helping coach them at a robotics camp this summer in addition to becoming involved with their school robotics team this fall. I’m super excited for them, but also insanely jealous of all the cool things they have access to that I didn’t as a kid in terms of building and programming things.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to aspiring engineers?
Identify the things you would like to work on and then try to answer the other questions after that. Regardless of the path you choose, it’s a really great time to be going into the field. It’s the first time I can remember where I feel like the tools that are available to us are progressing so fast that it is somewhat of a challenge to keep up with them. It’s definitely an exciting time to be an engineer.