ANNA — Just after Nov. 30, someone she didn’t know stopped Susie Bowles, of Sidney, in the grocery store.
“You’re her, aren’t you?” the stranger asked.
Bowles, surprised for just a moment, admitted that she was. She was one of the Honda Engineering North America Inc. workers in Anna who had been featured that morning on national television news.
The “CBS This Morning” show ran a segment on a team of engineers, purchasing agents and software designers who had built a series of prosthetic arms for a colleague, Tony Leonard, of Dayton. The television story was orginally broadcast by the CBS affiliate in Columbus during the summer.
But the work on the arms began in 2015.
Leonard, who had suffered from degenerative diseases since childhood, had lost most of his left arm to Charcot disease. Because his legs were also weak, he became wheelchair-bound for two years. He couldn’t balance on crutches with just one arm, and insurance company red tape had prevented Leonard from getting a genuine prosthesis.
A Honda division manager, Frank Kahle, thought maybe a group of fellow employees with the right skills could do something about it.
He got the idea from students at Troy Christian Schools who had toured the Honda plant a couple of months earlier.
“They had a 3D printer and had made a rudimentary hand,” Kahle said. “We have technologies that we use every day — scanners, 3D printers.” So he went Internet searching and found videos of Robert Downey Jr.’s presentation of a prosthetic arm to a boy, an arm made by a university.
“I clicked links. People put models on Open Source (a software company that makes source code available to the public),” he said.
Kahle began to put the team together.
“Inside Honda, we have NH Circle activity. We create teams to work on problems. We work across disciplines and we share information,” he said. Kahle got approval for the project to be an NH Circle activity.
“I was approached by Les (Bowers, of Wapakoneta) and Frank on the idea. It was a bit overwhelming, but exciting that they wanted to help me,” Leonard said.
Eventually the team also included Richard Crosson, of Anna, Corey Howard, of Raymond, Scott Jones, of Dublin, and Dave Macke, of Sidney, who has since retired. They did some work on company time. But they also gave up lunch hours and stayed after hours.
“We got Tony on the table and measured his arm,” said Crosson. They set out to make a solid arm to attach to Leonard’s crutch. Before they were done, they had made six arms, each one solving another problem.
“Our target wasn’t to make an arm. It was to get Tony out of the chair and onto the crutches.,” Crosson said.
Everything didn’t go swimmingly at first. They used Leonard’s good right arm as the model for the left one, but when they created the new arm, they forgot to reverse engineer it for the left side.
“So it was like his right arm,” Bowles said. The next one was a left arm, but it would swing back and forth on the crutch, which kept Leonard from being steady.
“There was a lot of re-engineering,” Kahle said. But this was a team that wouldn’t give up.
“We hadn’t met the goal,” Kahle said. “You just keep perfecting it, the same as our normal job.”
And then there was the day it worked. Leonard put on the arm, clamped it to his crutch, and walked — for the first time in two years.
“I was pretty excited,” Leonard said. The first arms were solid, molded constructions. They did the job, and Leonard used them for three or four months, but they were heavy and cumbersome. The team wanted to make something better.
So they crafted a sixth arm, this one with 52 moveable parts.
“It had three movements. You could pinch. There were three fingers and an opposable thumb,” said Howard. It was much lighter than the previous arms, but just as sturdy.
“We put the equivalent (weight) of four Civics on it. It took that to break it,” Kahle said. To make that one, the team consulted with Leonard’s doctors and with technicians at the Hanger Clinic in Dayton.
“We’ve been in contact with Tony’s surgeon the whole time. We wanted to keep Tony safe,” Bowers said.
Leonard never used the last arm the team built. He had received a state-of-art bionic arm by the time the Honda-made arm was finished. But that state-of-the-art arm presented another problem for the team to solve. The bionic hand couldn’t grip the crutch well. It did, however, come with a hook that could be interchanged with the hand.
So the team went back to the drawing board and developed a crutch attachment that the hook snaps into.
“We had to be very precise,” Bowles said. That’s why they worked so closely with doctors. The removable crutch attachment was a success. Leonard has been using it for almost two years as he works to strengthen his legs.
“I think I’ve plateaued on the legs, but it doesn’t mean I’ll stop working out,” he said.
The whole arm project took eight months to complete, and the team won top awards for it at Honda conferences in Indianapolis and in China. That got the story on “CBS This Morning.”
The group really enjoyed seeing themselves on national television.
“I thought it was really cool,” Bowers said.
“It was emotional,” admitted Leonard. “It was a good day.” He especially appreciates comments people have made to him in response to the broadcast.
“They say, ‘All the bad that’s going around, it’s nice to hear something good,’” he noted.
So, this unique Honda Engineering team won national recognition and international awards, which they all feel are secondary to what they see as their biggest achievement. They got Leonard out of his wheelchair. Goal met, project over. Right?
Wrong. They’re not done yet.
“We’re a pretty close-knit family. Everybody got something out of doing this,” Kahle said. So they asked themselves, “What else can we do?’
Leonard still has maneuvering struggles at home and in getting in and out of a car.
“How do we build momentum to (fix) that?” Kahle asked rhetorically. Finding solutions may not continue to be a Honda NH Circle activity, but it’s one that the group is enthusiastically tackling now.
“(It’s been) great to see how (what we’ve done) touched so many people,” Bowles said. “That was so much more than winning a trophy.”
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824