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Passion Drives Student to Design a Difference

Brad Newby with his Robotic Prosthetic Hand
Published: Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

A little less than 25 years ago, Brad Newby moved from Los Angeles to El Dorado with a suitcase, a dream and a high school diploma.

He came to Kansas to take care of his grandmother. He had no money and no job.

Last Fall, Newby, a mechanical engineering student at Wichita State University, made a breakthrough in prosthetic engineering. With the help of high-level math and a $300 3D printer, he has created a low-cost, highly-functional prosthetic hand.

Close up of Brad Newby's prosthetic hand

After arriving in Kansas and working as a mechanic at an aircraft plant, Newby knew he wanted to go to school for mechanical engineering. In 2008, he took his first course at Butler Community College. He started out with Algebra. Each semester, he’d tackle another math class, plugging through three calculus classes and eventually mastering differential equations.“Butler took me a long way,” Newby said. He said his math professor, Ruth Meyer, Ph.D., was “instrumental in me understanding math concepts.”

Meyer remembers how Newby would regularly come to her office for help. “He came to me sometimes with questions about class, but equally with questions about what he was designing outside of class,” she said.

Newby always tinkered on mechanical pieces – remote control planes and laser lights.

“He applied the concepts he was learning in math to his quad copter,” Meyer said. “He always built things, and he’d bring them in.”

Butler Community College physics professor, Danny Mattern was impressed at how Newby would help other students in his physics class and share his knowledge with them.

Eventually, Newby took an advanced physics class at Butler with Anne Gillis, Ph.D.  His designs went even further in her class.

“Brad Newby is highly creative and extremely proficient at designing and building robotic devices,” Gillis said. “In earlier times he would have been an inventor, someone you would find working alongside Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla.”

Newby doesn’t feel extraordinary; after all, he’s been taking things apart, and sometimes putting them back together, since he was little. Often he would sit on his dad’s workbench, eat M & M’s and watch his father build. Newby’s father, a shop teacher, was always building something.

“When most kids were saving up for a car, I was saving up for flight lessons,” Newby said. On his 16th birthday, Newby flew over Los Angeles in a Cessna.

Now, Newby’s two oldest children continue the M & M tradition. Donovan, 11, and Tanis, 17, hang out with their dad in the garage; they sometimes tinker, but mainly they watch. Donovan holds the M & M’s – sometimes he shares.

Donovan and Tanis have watched their father build the prosthetic hand. Like many of his other “toys”, they’ve watched this project from conception.  One of Newby’s professor’s at WSU gave him the choice of building a low-cost hand or a wheelchair. Newby thought the hand was more of a challenge.

“They expect you to fail,” Newby said about his assignment. “I wanted the challenge. Nobody out there had anything low cost for a robotics-powered hand that are 3D printed.”

Newby met with fellow student, Nicholas Youngers, also a Butler alumnus, talked about the hand and drew it out on paper. Then Newby went home and began work in his garage. He invented a hand that can perform more than one task. It can perform four. Unlike some other hands on the market, Newby’s hand can mimic human hand motion and is able to have a precision, cylindrical and spherical grip, as well as a lateral grasp. Newby took his knowledge that he learned at Butler and some ideas from Youngers, mixed them with more knowledge from WSU and created a hand that can sell for under $160.

“I want to help people and ease suffering,” he said. “I want this hand to be available to someone in a small town in Kansas. It’s good to be able to do good.”

Newby presented a research paper on his hand at the International Design Engineering Conference on August 21 in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is in a continual process of taking apart and reassembling the invention in the hopes of figuring out how to make it look more lifelike. Youngers is helping him with the process and assisted Newby at the conference.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to find him (Newby) working somewhere amazing not too long from now,” Gillis said. When he does, she said, “I want a tour.”