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Re-inventing the Wheel[chair]

by Áine Duffy, Royal College of Art

Prototype wheel being folded

The Crossbreed folding wheel is an exciting design project that has potential benefits for wheelchair users. It is currently being developed further in association with InnovationRCA, an innovation incubator affiliated with the Royal College of Art, London.

According to designer Duncan Fitzsimons, the Crossbreed folding wheel, originally designed for the cycle market, could revolutionise the everyday use of wheelchairs, enabling users to handle, transport and store their chairs in a vastly more efficient way.

Like all great inventions, the Crossbreed began with a challenge. Watching a fellow student trying to stash his road bike out of rain, Duncan first had the idea that led him all the way to the finals of the Saatchi & Saatchi World Changing Ideas competition. The bike fitted the small space available the wheels didn't … no matter how the student struggled that bike wasn't going to fit … and that's when Duncan remembered his lecturer's challenge and realised that if the wheels could somehow fold, then storage would just be less of an issue."

A tutor and keen cyclist at the Royal College of Art, Mark Sanders, had planted the seed of an idea in one of his classes when he said "the best improvement that could be done in the world of folding bikes would be to try and fold the wheel". Duncan then started to think of a way this could be achieved without compromising the wheel's functionality.

Having first produced a prototype for his graduate show and received lots of media attention, Duncan was encouraged by the organisers of the Saatchi & Saatchi Awards to enter their competition. With the interest such additional exposure gave him, it wasn't long before some wheelchair users approached him asking if he could produce a collapsible wheel for them.

Originally conceived of as a new approach to the design of folding bikes, the Crossbreed wheel has immediate applications in the area of mobility. When faced with the problem of limited storage space and difficulties with transport, cyclists can choose to use a folding bicycle. Wheelchair users face similar problems. With smaller wheels they too could fold their chair into a more manageable package.

Duncan took the wheelchair users' request on board. Working at the Royal College of Art he had access to an incredible resource: the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Sustainable Design, or HHC as it's known, is based at the College. The HHC was able to put Duncan in contact with user focus groups. "There are many occasions when a wheelchair is not in use, and at these times it becomes a large and bulky item; hard to move around, difficult to store and a pain to use with other forms of transport. Cars, taxis trains, planes these all presented their own problems to wheelchair users," he noted.

"A wheelchair really needs large wheels. It's the key to being independent. If these wheels can fold up then wheelchair users can benefit from all the advantages of being able to fold their chair up into a much smaller package, whilst keeping the essential larger wheels and keeping the push-rim."

A wheelchair fitted with folding wheels can be much more easily stored and handled, both at home and when getting in and out of cars and taxis. A folding wheel could even allow a whole new type of wheelchair to be designed: one that can fold up into a small package similar to a golf bag in shape and size. This wheelchair could be as high performance as any other, yet fold up small enough to fit into an overhead locker on an airplane, wheels and all.

Duncan is currently developing a wheelchair-specific version of Crossbreed with an integrated push-rim and easy to use locking lever at InnovationRCA. He hopes that with support from the wheelchair industry, we should see it changing the way we use wheelchairs by 2009.

First models of this wheel will be made from carbon fibre composite, to meet the weight and stiffness requirements of the most demanding wheelchair users and Duncan hopes that these can be supplied at a cost which is as close as possible to non-folding high performance wheels. Further down the line he plans for a range of models to be made available for different budgets and performance needs.

If you go to Duncan's website you can see a video of an early test prototype folding wheel being put through its paces on a bicycle.

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Page last updated 28 March 2015.