TOKYO -- The Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, which started on Wednesday, are a big event for manufacturers that support the athletes with cutting-edge technology. In Japan, makers of assistive devices are already looking ahead to the next Paralympic Games, to take place in Tokyo in 2020.
Prosthetics maker Nakamura Brace made an artificial arm for Japanese Paralympic swimmer Mei Ichinose, whose right arm ends below her elbow. Ichinose uses the prosthetic arm for training to strengthen her muscles, although swimmers are not allowed to wear artificial limbs during actual competitions at the Paralympics.
Nakamura Brace can make realistic-looking body parts such as feet, hands, fingers or breasts using silicone rubber, but it was its first attempt to make a body part for an athlete. Makoto Nasu, the engineer in charge of Ichinose's prosthesis, said the connection between the wearer and the device can come under strong pressure from the swimmer's motions, such as pulling, pushing and twisting the arm in the water. To avoid hurting the wearer's skin, the company tried to minimize the movement of the connection by layering different materials with a range of hardness. It also paid special attention to reducing the sticky texture on its surface.
"The connection doesn't move even under strong pressure," Ichinose said. "It works well for training."
Imasen Engineering made an above-the-knee prosthesis for long jumper Atsushi Yamamoto. Similar devices have used soles taken from off-the-shelf spike shoes, but the parts would come off easily. Imasen, teaming up with sportswear maker Mizuno, created a special spike just for the artificial leg. By dialing an adjuster wheel, the part can be fixed firmly to the leg. Imasen also made the leg lighter than conventional spiked prosthetic legs.
Some manufacturers have leveraged their technology in other areas to develop prostheses for athletes. Yachiyo Industry, an autoparts supplier for Honda Motor, developed a light but tough wheelchair, called Kiwami, for athletes based on its carbon-fiber and resin technologies for making fuel tanks and sunroofs. Japanese wheelchair marathoners, including Wakako Tsuchida, will use it in the race taking place on the final day of the Rio Paralympics.
Shingo Kunieda, the world's top wheelchair tennis player, uses a chair made by Ox Engineering. He is competing for his third men's singles gold medal in a row. Ox's technology allows speedy and accurate handling of his wheelchair.
Keita Sato, a short-track runner, wears a prosthetic leg designed for athletes by Xiborg. The 2-year-old startup is looking to further apply its technology to develop artificial legs for daily use. The startup also hopes an athlete wearing one of its devices will win a world record at the Tokyo Paralympics.