A new sustainable wheelchair seat design

Posted on 17 Jun 2021 by Tom St John

The National Composites Centre (NCC) and the charity Motivation have collaborated to design and manufacture a wheelchair seat pan for users in Third World countries.

This design is made entirely from sustainable, green composite materials. The aim here, is to not only create a sustainable product, but significantly improve the quality of life for disabled people in developing countries.

Motivation, are a global disability charity and social enterprise that provides wheelchairs, training and services to disabled people in low and middle-income countries. Richard Entwistle, Lead for Design for Manufacture at the NCC, was approached by the charity for help in developing the new concept.

Wheelchair user

Richard said, “Internationally, Motivation are one of the biggest players in developing and manufacturing wheelchairs for developing countries – we are talking huge numbers. We went to discuss what they would like to do out of composites and instantly, their Senior Designer Ian Harris, said he had an idea that had been in the offing for while; a seat, that we can conform to the user’s needs.”

Wheelchair prototype: This design needed to be sustainable but also robust, to be used in harsh climates.

Crucially, the design needed to tick a few boxes. It needed to be robust to cope with rough terrain, affordable to produce, and made from bio-based materials that could be locally sourced within those countries.

Richard continued, “Using composites instead of the existing materials offers so many benefits. They will outlast the equivalent materials, you can outperform them, and you can bring other benefits, such as the renewable side of things. We coined a phrase – lets grow a product instead of mining it. We used sustainable fibres and the bio derived resin system. This enables us to set up the product locally. It means that we don’t have to go to mainland China, we don’t have to go to other huge suppliers and we can have a local base of design and supply.”

Seat pan design: Users will now benefit from a more supportive and comfortable seat.

The cushion design stops the user from sliding backwards in the chair. It has a small well that supports rear of the body, keeping the pelvis in line. On standard wheelchairs, users have previously had to deal with discomfort caused from cushions that are not as supportive.

Adam Healey, Research Engineer at the NCC said, “What the current wheelchair seats have in common is they have the same polyurethane foam cushion. It is not giving people the right structural support long term. These cushions can get dirty; they are being used 24/7. Wheelchair user’s roll them into the shower, they get taken out to the beach or out in the streets.

Often, it can be quite expensive, and quite hard on a supply chain to get new cushions to developing countries. They then sit on them for so long that they develop health problems like pressure sores, and other which can land them in hospital.”

The overall manufacturing costs of the green composite seat are slightly more costly. However, this is not seen as a problem, as the long-term benefits of quality of life and durability completely outweigh the increase in production costs, according to the NCC. Bio-composite materials are also more durable for constant use in aqueous or dusty environments, improving sustainability through extended service life.

For both Adam and Richard, this really feels like a project with a heart; their direct involvement in the seat design could have a huge impact in improving quality of life to wheelchairs users. While mobility problems effect the lives of people anywhere in the world, those living in countries with harsher terrains and less frequent or reliable public transport, are impacted far more.

Adam said, “My dad is in a wheelchair and has been since before I was born. I’m kind of familiar with lots of struggles that he has, as a wheelchair use it in the First World. So, it is great being able to try and improve quality of life for people who are not necessarily as lucky as he is. It is really nice to do a project which has a very tangible human benefit.”

Richard echoed those sentiments: “We are just engineers that make stuff – we will make anything because we love making things. But, when it goes to someone that is truly grateful for your work – that is what you do it for. It has been fantastic.”

You can learn more about the Sustainable Composites initiative and for related content, visit the Innovation section of The Manufacturer’s website.

Images courtesy of Motivation – supplied by NCC