Posted June 29th 2011 at 8:33 am by
in Transportation

Designing the Perfect Wheelchair

• In this post Paul Lazarescu describes the process of designing a wheelchair to suit the rough roads of Antigua, Guatemala. Paul spending the summer in Antigua, working with the Transitions Foundation to design, develop, and test new wheelchair designs and accessories.

Wheelchairs in Guatemala, Part II

Rachel welds the wheelchair.

I’ve been in Antigua now for almost four weeks, although it feels like two. We’ve almost finished our wheelchair, and today it is getting fitted with a custom cushion. While initially our most important design metric was the weight, Alex, the President of Transitions, explained that a difference of even something as great as 10 lbs is not a big deal in comparison to a person’s body weight. Much more important, he said, is the durability and adjustability of the chair. To this end, Rachel and I added an extra support bar underneath the chair. We also designed mechanisms for adjusting the backrest height and position, the position of the axle, the height of the footrest, the width of the mudguards, and the height of the caster wheels. So far the feedback from the guys in the shop has been very positive, and we hope to do some testing this week.

During my time here, I’ve seen many patients come into Transitions to get fitted for a chair. Many measurements are taken, and a chair is customized specifically for that user. This is where my co-worker Rachel and I hope our chair (and the mechanisms involved) will have the greatest impact: a chair that is built to be both extremely rugged and incredibly adjustable.

Quite a few of the visiting patients have been children, and we wanted to design a chair that can be easily modified with nothing more than a wrench so it can be adjusted along with a child’s growth.

In addition to our wheelchair, Rachel, Joel (one of the guys in the workshop), Juan Carlos (a industrial design student from Guatemala City), and I have also designed an extra-wheel attachment, which attaches to the front of the wheelchair and helps users drive across the rough cobblestones of Antigua. One of the guys in the shop has been using it with his chair for the past week, and he tells us that it now takes him half the time to get home, as he finds it easier to climb steep and rough slopes. We plan to build a jig to make more of these off-road attachments this upcoming week.

So far, working with Transitions has been an unbelievable experience. Not only are the guys in the shop fantastic designers and builders, but they also have great senses of humor and are fun to be around. Transitions is more like a family than a workplace, and I’ve learned a lot not only in specific manufacturing processes but also about the Guatemalan culture. I’ve picked up a bit of Spanish, too.

Post by Paul Lazarescu. This project is supported by the MIT Public Service Center.

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