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Robot puts therapist back in business

Repeatedly applying pressure to patients at his muscular therapy clinic, Al Meilus was himself injured and was temporarily forced to stop working last January.

As he recovered in the hospital, Meilus thought about how he could use a robotic aid that would be able to apply pressure at specific points to ease his patients' pain, just as he would with his thumb.

Buying a robot could cost far too much, up to $100,000. But before giving up, Meilus visited the plant that Martin Marietta Specialty Components Inc. operates in Largo.

Engineers there helped Meilus build his own robot using off-the-shelf parts for $8,000 in materials and labor. Now, Meilus is working with plant officials toward commercial production of robots.

At a ceremony at the plant Thursday, Florida Commerce Secretary Charles Dusseau extended for another year the financing for the program that brought together Martin Marietta, Meilus and other small business people like him.

"This is a terrific example of creativity," Dusseau said. He noted the state's need to diversify its high-tech employment base, which is heavily dependent on defense-related work.

The Largo complex has helped build America's nuclear arsenal since 1956. But with the Cold War over and plant production expected to end next year, officials have aimed to put the plant's expertise to new commercial purposes.

The extension of the financing agreement, first signed by Gov. Lawton Chiles in August 1993, provides $150,000 from the state in the form of services including administration and marketing.

The state effort matches $150,000 contributed by the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns the plant. Also, Enterprise Florida has contributed $10,000 for operating the program.

In its first year, Martin Marietta received 74 requests for assistance and has helped on more than 60 projects. The businesses range from medical practitioners to manufacturers in need of new product prototypes.

The company estimates it has saved participating companies more than $1.1-million in the last year.

Meilus, 42, was trained as an electrical engineer. Before getting into the massage therapy business in 1988, he worked for General Electric Co. as a program and project manager in its lighting and aerospace units.

At the clinic, Meilus' robot rests on a rack that is placed over the patient table. He moves it to the precise point using a computer-game joystick. Pressure from the robot's arm is also adjusted with the joystick.

With his hands Meilus feels the muscle tissue stretch at the same time the robot is applying pressure. Eventually, an electronic sensor may be able to monitor the effects of the pressure.

Barry James of Oldsmar was in severe pain when he first started visiting Meilus, the result of a sudden spasm when he squatted to pick up something off the floor.

Now, James sometimes directs the robot himself while Meilus is busy with other activities at the clinic. James said the robot and Meilus' thumb each have the same effect in making him feel better.

For his part, Meilus said he is glad the robot saved his business and has prevented him from suffering another hernia injury.