Amos Winter, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at MIT, has developed an innovative wheelchair specifically for people living in the developing world. The device is really just a design concept that any bicycle repair shop should be able to replicate using already available bike parts. Because of this approach, small local manufacturers can custom build the chair and avoid time delays and the bureaucratic mess of dealing with aid agencies and intergovernmental institutions that are typically involved in similar projects.
From MIT press office:
The implementation began last summer, when Winter launched his first trial in East Africa with collaboration from the Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya. He and Mario Bollini ‘09, Danielle DeLatte ‘11, Benjamin Judge ‘11 and Harrison O’Hanley ‘11, spent a month in Kenya building eight prototypes of the LFC. Each chair cost slightly less than $200 to make, which Winter said is roughly the price of a regular wheelchair in Kenya. Weighing about 65 pounds, or five to 10 pounds more than a regular wheelchair, the LFC was customized for the trial participants, who range in age and live near varied terrain in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Winter returned to Africa with MIT senior Tish Scolnik four months later to interview the participants and test the efficiency of the LFC for each user.
What they learned from the “phenomenal feedback” is that although the LFC is more efficient than a regular wheelchair for plowing through mud and over big stones, it is still too wide and heavy. Winter will make the chair lighter by lowering the seat four inches and shifting the wheels back two inches, which will eliminate the need for the bulky mounting brackets that are currently used to attach the rear wheels to the chair.
In addition to reducing the width and weight, Winter will focus on improving the LFC for indoor use so that it functions just as well as a normal wheelchair when the levers are removed. He uses the desk chair/mountain bike analogy to describe how the LFC is intended to be used all day. Although someone might spend many hours each day sitting in a desk chair, it would be horrible to use that chair to commute to work, especially if the commute involved dirt roads. Similarly, while the mountain bike would be great for the commute, it would be awkward and uncomfortable to sit on all day at the office.
With the trial results, guidance from manufacturing collaborators and help from a group from his design class, Winter will use the IADB grant to design a new prototype and produce about 30 chairs for another trial that will begin in August in Guatemala. One crucial goal of the trip is to develop the manufacturing equipment that will be used to build the chairs for large-scale production, which Winter hopes will begin in 2011.
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