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30 April 2018

Designing a modular wheelchair

Molly Gavriel from Disrupt Disability reports on the team's prototyping process and the collaboration with Hello Shenzhen resident Kang Cheng

Disrupt Disability

Designing and modelling at our hackathon at Machines Room in June

The Disrupt Disability project started with an observation and a question - the observation being that customised wheelchairs were prohibitively expensive, for the majority of the world’s wheelchair wearers. The question is - how can we make the wheelchair market work better for wheelchair wearers? We wanted to find out how the market could be redesigned, so that people could have control over the form and function of their wheelchair.

Using makerspaces as prototyping hubs 

To support our project we're exploring how makerspaces can be used to connect wheelchair wearers directly to the design and manufacturing process of making wheelchairs. In March 2017, we welcomed Chinese maker Kang Cheng to join our team in the UK during his Hello Shenzhen residency at Machines Room, a makerspace and pre-incubator in East London.

Disrupt Disability

Hello Shenzhen resident Kang working with Gareth Owen Lloyd from Machines Room & Dan Chambers from Draft Wheelchairs at Machines Room in London

During his residency, Kang worked with us to design and prototype our idea for a wheelchair ‘hub’ - a standardised core component that enables wheelchair users to interchange independently designed and manufactured wheelchair modules; such as the seat, front wheels and footplate.

Our interchangeable system aims to allow different makers to manufacture different components through digital fabrication and distributed manufacturing. This connects wheelchair wearers directly to the design and manufacturing process of making their own module.

Receiving continuous feedback from wheelchair wearers is an essential part of our process, to ensure that our design fits people’s experience and needs.  To address this challenge, we organised a series of hackathons with a group of wheelchair wearers, designers and makers.  

Disrupt Disability Hackathons

Every participant had varying levels of knowledge and experience, but shared a common goal of using design and technology to improve wheelchairs.

Our hackathon format ensures everyone can contribute to designing and making, regardless of prior experience. We start the day with short talks on wheelchair design and other topics addressing the themes of the day - introductions on everything from ‘hacking’ your own wheelchair to 3D printing and open source design.

Disrupt Disability

One of the teams discussing the modular system at our hackathon at Machines room in June

Attendees tackle design challenges in groups, with each group comprised of wheelchair wearers, designers and makers. It’s perhaps not surprising that the best ideas come from teams who work well together, and it’s essential that design solutions are user-led, linking directly to the experiences of wheelchair wearers in the group.

The idea of the hub, developed and prototyped during the British Council's Hello Shenzhen programme, came directly from our hackathons. In these sessions, wheelchair users discussed the difficulty in repairing or replacing parts of the chair that had worn out, and a desire to change their chair’s function or appearance without having to buy a whole new chair.

Kristin Luke

Kristin Luke

Design ideas developed during the hackathon

Designers and makers from different backgrounds raised concerns about their ability to make a whole wheelchair, but could see the opportunities presented by having a system which could allow them to make a single part of the chair. For example, a chair manufacturer could make the seat, and a bike manufacturer the front wheels.

For us, the hackathon format is a brilliant way to work together with a diverse, multidisciplinary group of users, designers and makers and collect essential feedback on our design approach.  

Creating the prototype 

Since July, Kang has been working with Disrupt Disability from Shenzhen, China, to manufacture two prototypes of the hub in aluminium, one welded and the other cast. Kang has also developed prototype modules that are compatible with the hub and explored how the system can physically work, allowing for the hub to be tested.

The project has not been without its challenges. Like Kang, Disrupt Disability are new to wheelchair design and manufacturing, and our project is radically different from traditional wheelchair manufacturing. We wanted to break away from the image of traditional wheelchairs and create a modular design that maximised the ability of the user to customise for both form and function. This meant minimising the visual impact of the hub and enabling modules to be created for a range of scenarios, from going on a trip to the cinema to climbing a mountain.

Disrupt Disability

Making the test modules in Shenzhen

Kang was tasked with the ‘first hurdle’ of designing and prototyping the hub, and it took a great deal of skill and creativity from the whole team to imagine how different modules might be made and function together. One of our key objectives was to minimise constraints on the design of future modules, so the design had to consider other manufacturing processes and wheelchair standards to maximise choice in module design.

By using CAD, we were able to share designs easily across continents and learn from each other’s expertise. Continuing the Hello Shenzhen project back in China has also enabled Kang to display Shenzhen’s incredible manufacturing resources to their best - it was really exciting to see the hub being cast. Kang made the casting for the first version of the hub, and for the second welded version he went to a metal workshop and finished the welding with the help of the team there.

Kang’s direct involvement in the manufacturing process has helped us to really understand what these processes involve and the networks we need to develop to make our own versions of the hub - both as bespoke commissions and mass-produced products.

We have recently received the latest prototype hubs created by Kang’s team in Shenzhen and are looking forward to evaluating the prototypes with the team  later this month.

Hello Shenzhen is a partnership between the British Council, The Shenzhen Foundation for International Exchange and Cooperation and Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab.

Hello Shenzhen is developed in partnership with Liz Corbin, Institute of Making, UCL

Supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

With thanks to Kickstarter for their in-kind support