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Finding Inspiration

Recent Innovations for Ultralightweight Wheelchairs Have Come from New Sources

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IDEA/LIGHTBULB: DEPOSITPHOTO.COM/BRIANAJACKSON

Manufacturers, regardless of what they make, design products based on what their customers tell them. Complex Rehab Technology (CRT) manufacturers want to be responsive to the consumers, clinicians, and suppliers who use, recommend, purchase and fit their products.

But CRT is complicated. Each person who uses a wheelchair has different goals, functional abilities, clinical needs, and progressions of conditions. End user success is the goal, but many answers come from outside the wheelchair industry.

Such is the case with ultralightweight chairs, expected to perform at such high levels while staying so minimal.

Pushing Design Envelopes

Cody Verrett, VP of Sales for Motion Composites, spoke of consumers’ expectations for the company to excel. “We spend a great deal of time listening to customer feedback, and we push the envelope with our engineering and quality teams to the benefit of the client,” he said. “We fully appreciate that you have to design with reimbursement in mind, but we believe that whenever we’re in a position to lower overall weight, increase quality or improve propulsion efficiency, that’s the direction we want to go.

“That’s one of the things I love most about working with Motion Composites. They’re really proud to be the lightest fully adjustable K0005 in each category, and we’re always applying our patented technologies that increase propulsion efficiency across the entire product line, from top to bottom. So everything we do is about lowering weight and increasing the rigidity of the folding frame, and of course, our [rigid] Apex as well. That’s where we spend all of our time, in those two areas, because they make such a difference to the consumer.”

Motion Composites has held a different perspective from the beginning. In an industry that typically holds up rigid-framed ultralights as the gold standard, Motion Composites first set its sights on designing the best folding-frame chair possible.

“They came to this challenge with no previous experience, not being part of the wheelchair industry,” Verrett said of company co-founders Eric Simoneau and David Gingras, who currently serve as CEO and COO, respectively.“They came from an outsider’s perspective of trying to revolutionize manual wheelchairs as we know it.”

The Quebec-based manufacturer specializes in carbon fiber. “One of the things I’ve learned is Motion Composites starts with the very best,” Verrett said. “For example, our best ideas in folding wheelchairs reside in our Helio C2, and that product is to me the greatest folding wheelchair on earth. It’s incredible for what it does, how strong it is. And we’re so confident in our carbon fiber application that we warranty it: It comes with a lifetime guarantee.”

Motion Composites then applied the Helio C2’s principles to other wheelchair lines that used less costly materials. “While we may have moved from a carbon fiber to an aluminum product to better meet difficult, challenging funding guidelines,” Verrett explained, “the same technological principles came over from the premier model in the Helio C2 all the way down through our Helio A7, then eventually to our Helio A6, which is our most entry-level folding chair. But it shares that same one-piece side frame, symmetrical cross brace and other precision technologies that make it one of the most rigid, propulsion-efficient and lightest aluminum folding wheelchairs on earth.”

Simoneau and Gingras were college students when the idea for Motion Composites took shape. “They saw folding as the biggest opportunity to make incredible improvements,” Verrett said of their decision to focus on a folding-frame wheelchair. “If you took a folding wheelchair 15 years ago and looked at it, generally speaking, they had lots of shortcomings. Since E&J [Everest & Jennings] invented the crossbrace folder in the ’50s, it hasn’t changed, really. Motion Composites saw that as the opportunity to make something that was just remarkable. [In Canada], folding is a much more common and a [larger] part of the prescription process. So it was more prevalent, and they saw it as the biggest opportunity to make a significant improvement.”

The company looks to the aerospace industry, Verrett said, “for new and cutting-edge materials, technologies, and application best practices. However, Motion Composites has sought to be a trend setter in the industry with our proprietary application of carbon fiber, our patented symmetrical cross-brace, and the triple-butted aluminum applications we deploy for strength that’s incredibly light, just to name a few.”

As far as what he’s looking forward to in the ultralight space, Verrett said, “I really enjoyed… the Toyota Mobility Foundation’s Mobility Unlimited Challenge award (see sidebar). It’s in that spirit of innovation for the benefit of others that I find my true love for this industry, and it’s why I’m so excited about the direction Motion Composites is going. We believe the sky’s the limit with regards to better materials and technologies, and the vibration-damping properties found in our carbon fiber creates the type of ride characteristics I think all wheelchairs should have.

“I think we will eventually solve the challenge of an ultralightweight tilt system that takes ‘family-friendly’ to a whole new level. In the meantime, we are laser focused on anything we can do to make our products weigh less and be more propulsion efficient.”

A New Design Tackles an Old Problem

A recent example of innovative thinking solving an old problem is Ki Mobility’s design approach to wheelchair vibration.

Tom Whelan, VP of Sales, explained upgrading an existing product vs. designing a new one: “A large part of development in our industry is not brand new. In rigid wheelchairs, I’d say it’s mostly incremental improvement. You can carve out some exceptions: For example, the introduction of monotube frame design.

“Most wheelchairs are improvements on existing designs, so the priorities on those projects are pretty simple. You’re focused on feedback from your customers, taking all the information you have, and applying that to improving an existing product.”

Ki Mobility’s Ethos ultralight, however, has an entirely different design and perspective.

“We started with a problem and an idea,” Whelan said. “The market kept talking about vibration. People kept marketing chairs based on vibration, whether it was titanium or composites, and they were all focusing in on the frame material of the chair.

“Alan [Ludovici, a Ki engineer] and I had been talking about this for a couple of years. We decided to see how we could change the design to solve the problem. That’s where Alan and I came up [with] disconnecting the casters and separating the seat frame and the base frame with elastomers.”

Whelan noted that using elastomers to isolate components “has been done in modern engineering for years. A lot of new buildings are built on foundations with vibration dampening for that purpose. The Millennium Bridge in London was launched and almost collapsed; they had to shut it down until they could figure out a way to dampen vibration that was causing this resonance frequency and getting this thing to twist and sway.”

He added, “Really, [Ki’s] design priority was to develop a chair that could fit into the cost, because cost is important. We didn’t want to start with something that was unattainable. We knew what the problem was, and that was the focus of the design.”

The CRT Industry’s Challenges

Due to CRT’s small size, its engineers have to be skilled at adapting possible solutions they discover in other industries.

“There’s a lot of information on how whole-body vibration affects able-bodied people,” Whelan said. “There’s no real research on how whole-body vibration is different in its effect on people with disabilities.”

Curt Prewitt, MS, PT, ATP, Director of Education for Ki Mobility, said, “The research that’s out there has been correlating able bodies and what’s in the ISO standards regarding vibration and humans in seated postures, and trying to apply it to those seated in a wheelchair. There are some isolated instances of looking at eliciting spasticity, for example, but those dots haven’t been connected too well.”

“The solution actually incentivizes the research,” Whelan added. “After launching Ethos, we were contacted by an ATP who is doing her dissertation on this subject.”

Out of necessity, Whelan added, inspiration comes from all over. “Clearly, we’re in a competitive environment, so we pay very close attention to what everybody does. The U.S. market is more constrained by reimbursement, but if you go to REHA [the international rehabilitation tradeshow], you see all of these variations of design. Most of what I see in wheelchair technology, as far as advancements in materials and manufacturing methods, comes from other industries, like bicycles.”

“Nobody went out and said, ‘I’m going to develop a new alloy for wheelchairs.’ Nobody said, ‘I need to be able to shape metal in an entirely new way so I can make wheelchairs.’ We’re the recipient. So the emphasis is staying in touch with how manufacturing and material science is moving forward.”

How Innovations Support Consumers

Prewitt cautioned that the science of ultralight innovation must keep consumers’ interests at its core: “The ‘newest, lightest stuff’ is a bit of a misdirection. All this focus on weight is sometimes at the failure to address the more important issue of setup. From my perspective as a clinician, we need to understand the most efficient setup. I think as people have continued to learn more about optimizing setup, getting better weight distribution, making more efficient component choices for environment of use, those sorts of things, it has enabled users who might have previously been confined to other types of equipment to [choose] something that might be more mobile for them, easier to propel, easier to transport, etc.”

Jeromy Brown, a Ki Mobility Product Manager, knows all about optimal chair setup. At 17, he sustained a C5-6 spinal cord injury, a level of injury that frequently leads to power chair use. “I was told I would never be able take care of myself again,” Brown said. “I’m 100 percent independent. I went to college, traveled the world with the U.S. Wheelchair Rugby team, got married and had a child. I’m living my life.”

Upon joining Ki, Brown talked with Whelan about improving how he sat in his ultralight chair. “I said I’ve got to be stable in this chair because I’ve got a 4-year-old who’s always leaping at me. I need to stay in my chair, because I don’t have the function to get off the ground. My brother has children as well around that same age, and they just gang up on me.”

Now an Ethos user, Brown said, “I wake up, go to work, to the grocery store and run errands. I get home at the end of the day, and I’m exhausted. Like most parents, I have a child who just wants to play. The difference is when I added Ethos to the equation, I feel like I increased my energy and efficiency.

“With Ethos, I don’t feel all the vibrations caused by pushing on various surfaces such as roads, sidewalks and curb cuts. [Vibrations] add up over the day and reduce my energy. That additional energy at the end of the day allows me to chase my child around or help my wife do the dishes… it’s invaluable. In addition, I am able to be more efficient because I have the ability to optimize my chair setup to maximize propulsion efficiency throughout the life of the chair.”

The ideal ultralight, then, is a combination of inspired engineering and an expert setup fine-tuned to each user.

“There were long discussions of ‘Do we put him in a power chair or a manual chair?’” Brown said of his time in rehab. “I was lucky enough to have a physical therapist who pushed me to be in a manual chair. Unfortunately, I was put in a giant titanium chair that I struggled to get around in. Once I got home I wasn’t able to change the setup of the chair so I could get around. That’s the nice thing about Ethos: Yes, it’s a performance chair, but if you put a [person with a] new injury in it and if they get home and realize it’s not set up to accommodate their needs, they can make the adjustments needed to get the optimal setup.”

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Mobility Management.

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