Designing a Prosthetic to Help Surfers Catch a Wave
Along with wrestling and playing football and baseball, Lance Vargas spent much of his childhood and teen years surfing at the Jersey Shore.
That all changed after an accident in October 2017. He nearly died after touching a high-voltage power wire while climbing a steel train trestle. The massive electrical shock caused him to catch fire and plummet 30 feet. Vargas suffered burns over half his body, sustained numerous life-threatening injuries and needed his left leg amputated below the knee.
Countless surgeries and skin grafts, months of rehab and tremendous support allowed him to regain much of his former life, says Vargas, who’s now studying aviation at Delaware State University. However, his current prosthetic still limits him from participating in some of his favorite activities.
“I was a big surfer growing up,” says Vargas, now 21. “My dad was a surfer, my brother was a surfer, my cousins were surfers, and we had a house less than 10 minutes from the beach. So inherently, I became a surfer, but I haven’t really done it since the accident.”
Through their capstone project, a pair of 2020 Jefferson grads hope to get Vargas—and fellow adaptive athletes—back out on the waves. Industrial design alumni Zachary Samalonis and Yuhan Zhang spent their senior year developing the Swell Surf Foot, a low-cost, waterproof prosthetic with increased ankle mobility to allow correct surfing mechanics.
Their design recently won first place in the sports and recreation student category of the Core77 Design Awards. The prestigious competition honors excellence across the design field, with other winners coming from industry heavyweights like Microsoft, Google and Johnson & Johnson.
Samalonis and Zhang also just earned gold in the student category for the Industrial Designers Society of America’s International Design Excellence Award (IDEA). Apple’s original iPhone, Tesla’s Model S and the Oculus Rift are three past IDEA winners.
The inspiration for Swell came by chance. One morning before his senior year, Samalonis saw a video of adaptive surfers while scrolling Instagram. He couldn’t stop watching these athletes deftly navigate the waves in the face of their disability.
“I was blown away,” recalls Samalonis, who shared the clips with Zhang. “We’re both interested in sports and health, and we wanted to work on something that melded them together.”
After some initial research, the two friends decided to collaborate on their senior capstone project to fill a market need. Many traditional prosthetics lack the range of motion, pop-up flexibility and grip needed for surfing, the pair explains. Plus, sand and salt water can be corrosive, and insurance often doesn’t cover waterproof devices (which aren’t tailored for surfing). This drives many surfers to refashion their older prosthetics, drilling holes and wrapping them in duct tape to prevent rust.
“Even with these modifications,” Zhang says, “the experience is far from ideal.”
Zachary Samalonis tests the toe flexion on an early model of Swell.
To inform their work, Zhang and Samalonis reached out to the area amputee community and connected with Vargas, a surfer since age eight. The three met several times by his home in Belmar, N.J., and at Jefferson’s design studios. They examined how Vargas walked on his current prosthetic, and he underwent several rounds of prototype testing on a treadmill and balance board.
The pandemic, unfortunately, scuttled a planned ocean trip to try Swell on the water. However, this research with Vargas garnered critical feedback to establish the device’s look, feel and mechanics.
“We wanted our project to stand out from other prosthetics and make it empowering, like purchasing a pair of shoes,” Samalonis explains. “You’re going to buy this and show it off. In doing that, we had to strike a balance between making it look attractive and functioning well. We spent three months trying to nail that down.”
With an empathy rig, the team tested early models for viability and safety before working with Lance Vargas, an adaptive athlete.
The team settled on a dual urethane bushing system and sole to closely replicate the flexibility, grip and movement of a foot and allow surfers to nimbly maneuver in ways current prosthetics prohibit. Designed with materials intended for use in sand and salt water, Swell also can be easily adjusted at the beach, allowing users to fine-tune their desired performance. Importantly, Swell could sell for just $500 to $600, a relatively affordable price point in the world of prosthetics.
“Swell is a lifestyle product, not a medical device,” Samalonis stresses.
Fresh from their recent Core77 Design Awards win—and hopefully a few more competitions this summer—the team aims to get Swell in the water for further study. If all goes well with the ocean tests, they plan to apply for grants, seek potential investors and, eventually, bring it to market.
A 2017 accident forced Lance Vargas, a surfer since age eight, to have his left leg amputated below the knee. He visited campus several times to assist with Swell testing. In this trial, he’s using a balance board.
Both alumni attribute their time at the University and continued work on Swell to helping them grow as designers and achieve their early career success.
Zhang currently freelances, primarily on package design for DNA testing kits and UI/UX design for an NFT trading platform. “At Jefferson, I learned every part of creating a project—the marketing, the research and the business sides,” she says. “I feel like I can start a company by myself with all these skills.”
Samalonis works on commercial, consumer and medical projects at Philly-based industrial design firm Phase One Design. He, too, says Jefferson gave him the tools and confidence necessary to be real-world ready.
Mark Havens, associate director of Jefferson’s undergraduate industrial design program, says senior capstone projects like Swell showcase what students have learned over the previous three years. They also serve as springboards to becoming professional industrial designers.
“The extended timeframe allows teams to go in-depth and address a single challenge, build a circle of professional advisers and thoroughly resolve the technical aspects of their design,” he says. “The results become the centerpiece of their portfolios and a key differentiator in the job market.”