Design Engineering

UofT engineering students win Canadian leg of James Dyson Award

Mike McLeod   

General Medical

Engineering duo’s ForceFilm design helps surgeons avoid exerting too much force during minimally invasive surgery.

University of Toronto PhD students, Justin Wee (left) and Robert Brooks, with their ForceFilm project which won the 2017 Canadian James Dyson Award.

The James Dyson Foundation announced that two University of Toronto PhD students, Robert Brooks and Justin Wee, have won the Canadian James Dyson Award for their ForceFilm project, a surgical tool enhancement that provides real-time force feedback. The annual international product design competition tasks students from around the world to design something that solves a pressing problem.

For this year’s Canadian winner, that problem is the difficulty surgeons face when performing minimally invasive surgery (MIS). In traditional surgery, doctors can use their fingers to gauge how much force they are applying when performing a common procedure like tying a suture.

During MIS, however, the surgeon operates long, thin surgical tools inserted through small openings in the patient. As a consequence, it can be difficult to “feel” when too much pressure is applied with the tool. That can lead to negative outcomes considering that medical error is the third leading cause of death in U.S., according to a 2016 study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Of that, an estimated 12% is due to improper force.

To address this problem, Brooks and Wee spent two years developing ForceFilm, a digital system that can be retrofitted onto existing MIS surgical tools to restore that lost “sense of touch.” According the U of T team’s project page, the system employs between two to four strain gauges to capture axial force and torsion. The gauges are embedded in a thin, flexible circuit board, or film, that wraps around the instrument near its end effector and extends up to a cylindrical electronics module on the surgical tool’s handle. A Bluetooth transceiver in the module transmits raw strain gauge data to a surgical monitor that warns surgeons if they are exerting too much force.


During ForceFilms’ two-year development phase, prototypes were used in an educational study with 19 urologists at the Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. The team’s second prototype assured that the surgical instrument could be sterilized without ruining the electronics.

“Unlike most medical sensors, ForceFilm is uniquely economical and environmentally friendly because it can be steam sterilized and reused,” said ForceFilm co-founder, Robert Brooks. “We will be using the prize money to make ForceFilm last even longer. This will allow us to try different formulations and constructions of film and build test apparatuses to repetitively test them for abrasion and steam resistance, with the goal of having ForceFilm last a full year in surgical use.”

The Canadian James Dyson Award is the latest prize the UofT pair have received. Other include the $10,000 UofT Hatchery – Lacavera Prize and the National Technology and Business Conference – Veteran Pitch Competition. For the Canadian James Dyson Award, Brooks and Wee will receive $3,400 toward ForceFilm’s development. Their project, along with the following runner-ups, will enter the International competition, where it will go up against other national winners for the ultimate $50,000 prize.

Canada’s runners up include:

The sKan – McMaster University: The sKan assists physicians and the average individual with detecting melanomas by creating a thermal map of the region of interest on the skin.

Primo – OCAD University: Primo replaces the nut at the end of the truck of a skateboard, effectively providing a ‘training wheel’ for the skateboard, which allows a user to adjust granular tension on the wheels.

Avro Life Science – University of Waterloo: A Transdermal Drug Delivery System that uses a novel polymer matrix to deliver various small molecules through the skin and directly into the bloodstream. The first patch takes the form of a medicated sticker, to deliver seasonal allergy medication to children.

Design and Build of an Atmospheric Water Generator – University of Waterloo: This Atmospheric Water Generator uses a Peltier device to perform condensation and was found to be capable of producing up to 3L of drinking water within a 24-hour period.


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