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We caught up with the creator of #HackonWheels to find out how technology can change lives with the world’s first open source wheelchair.

Whilst backpacking around South East Asia and India, rookie maker Rachael got the idea to disrupt disability with digital fabrication, open hardware and the maker community by creating an open source wheelchair, so that everyone across the globe can access an affordable wheelchair that meets their individual needs. With innovations in technology bringing us custom made back braces with Andiamo or bionic arms with Open Bionics, the gap in the wheelchair market is finally being addressed. We caught up with Rachael to find out more ahead of her first UK event held with us at Here East on Wednesday May 18th.

HackOnWheels HackOnWheels

Q: What’s your background?

A: I did Philosophy at university, then a management training scheme in the public sector, before working for local and central government in disability, health and social care. I now I sit on the board of three UK charities. The first is calledScope, that exists to change society for disabled people. The second is theSocial Care Institute for Excellence, which tries to improve their practice in the sector. The last one is calledCommunity Integrated Care, which supports people with learning disabilities, dementia or mental health difficulties.

Q: Alongside all this work you also set up #HackonWheels, tell us about that.

A: In order to give freedom and independence, a wheelchair must be fully customised to the body, the lifestyle and environment of its user. With traditional design, manufacturing and distribution this can be very expensive. Digital fabrication, open hardware and the maker movement offer a radically new way of creating affordable customised wheelchairs. #HackonWheels is the movement to inspire a community of wheelchair users, hackers, designers and makers to create the world’s first open source wheelchair.

Q: As someone who previously wasn’t involved in the makerspace, what is it that excites you about it?

A: It gives anyone the the ability to make what they want without being restricted by what a company has decided to put on the market. It's a game changer for disability. Before open-hardware and the maker movement if you needed an aid or piece of equipment like a wheelchair you’d have to fit yourself to whatever was on the market or find a company and pay a lot of money to have it customised to your requirements. Now you can design and make the exact solution to meet your individual needs and with the websites like Thingiverse you can share your design so other people can make it or adapt it to meet their needs.

Q: Tell us the story behind #HackonWheels.

A: A few years ago, I was backpacking around South East Asia and India and as a wheelchair user I realised I was hardly seeing any other wheelchair users and virtually no independent ones. So I started to connect with NGOs on my journey to try and find out why. They told me that the reason why my wheelchair gives me independence is because it has been made for me. With traditional manufacturing techniques being fully customised to my body, to my lifestyle and to the environment that I live in comes at a very high price. My wheelchair costs about £3,000, which is at the lower end of the spectrum. But in a country like Laos, that's more than six times the average annual salary, so it’s just not affordable. 

A year later, I happened to read an article about 3D printing that explained it was a way to manufacture customisable items more cheaply. Based on my experiences backpacking, I thought it might be a way to reduce the cost of making fully customised wheelchairs. At first there were stumbling blocks because it was right at the start of the digital fabrication revolution and equipment was still very expensive.

Then by coincidence, this December, I was on holiday in Jordan and came across Refugee Open Ware who use digital fabrication to support refugees. One of the first things they showed me was a 3D printed functional prosthetic hand made of carbon fibre, which they told me had cost just $39 to make. Thinking it was impossible I asked about the design costs and they said there weren't any because they had used an open source design shared online by an organisation called e-NABLE. This idea of combining digital fabrication with open source design really excited me prompting the question; could we do the same for wheelchairs?

BeeTwo, a lab for social innovation backed by the Erste Bank Group, the Technical University Wien and open knowledge Austria also got excited by the question so we decided to have a hackathon to find out.

Q: Incredible story. Tell us about the hackathon, who was involved?

A: The hackathon was held in theHappylab Vienna, which is a makerspace in Vienna. We had 30 participants including wheelchair users, coders, engineers, makers, product designers, management consultants and, bike makers. The challenge was to develop design concepts for a fully customizable wheelchair that could be made in a maker-space from off the shelf materials.

Q: This is a very new area of innovation, as you’ve said, did you feel you managed to bring these different communities together?

A: Yes, it was fun. Many of the participants had never been inside a maker-space before and were excited about using a 3D printer for the first time. People came from such different backgrounds and really enjoyed sharing their expertise and learning new skills. Something I hadn't anticipated was that it was also an incredibly positive way to raise awareness of disability. People with and without disabilities brought their skills, expertise and to help break down barriers and in order to do that they had to understand what those barriers were.

Q: What did the teams create?

A: There were four main design concepts:

The first was for a wheelchair frame for adults. It was fully customizable because it was made out of off the shelf carbon fibre tubes that could be cut to any length with joints that were 3D printed from carbon fibre so each angle could also be customized to the user’s specific needs.

The second was for a children’s wheelchair frame with parametric joints that could be adjusted so the chair could grow with the child.

The third was for a castor fork (the bit that holds the front wheels together) that could be made without welding, which was challenging because the castor fork needs to be super robust as well as being able to hold differently sized wheels because some sizes more suitable than others for different types of terrain.

The last was for a backrest and seat that took a 3D body scan of a person’s back and bottom and sent this information to a CNC mill which cut a piece of high density foam to fit the exact contours of the person.

Q: Did you do any costing?

A: We need to prototype, but we think we could make the carbon frame for less than $300.

Q: Any other highlights?

A: At the end of the day, a product designer came to me, who typically designs beds and lights, and said that it was the the most meaningful day of work she’d ever had, which was fantastic. The other comment that stuck with me was a computer scientist who said “I can't stop thinking about this challenge of how to get up and down a kerb in a wheelchair, I’m going to keep thinking about it, there must be a way to solve it.” I think it was just an incredibly positive way to engage with disability issues and bring people with and without disabilities together.

Q: It’s amazing that the only innovations in this space seems to be so expensive, likethe Carbon Black at £10,000. What do you think the answer is?

A: Open hardware and open source design. Innovation is slowed by designers and researchers making and remaking the same mistakes. You do have people doing research and design in the wheelchair space but they're typically working for commercial organisations who are competing with each other so there's little incentive for them to share their learning or collaborate.

Innovation is stifled by commercial viability. Innovative designs are bought by wheelchair companies who never take them to market because they cannot make big enough margins on them. This is especially difficult for innovations and adaptations that could change the lives of just a small number of people.

Open hardware and open source design are catalysts for innovation. Open research and development won't necessarily pay for itself so I think that government could accelerate innovation by supporting it.

Q: What’s the dream for #HackonWheels?

A: The dream for #HackonWheels is to inspire a community of wheelchair users, hackers, makers and designers to create the world’s first open source wheelchair. The plan is to develop and grow a library of open source designs that will enable the community to make fully customized wheelchairs.

In terms of what's next, we need more hackathons to grow the community and develop more design concepts. Then we need to support people to develop and prototype them perhaps through challenge prizes and competitions. Once we have our first makeable open source designs we can start sharing them online and developing a library of designs.

Join Rachael at the next #HackonWheels on Wednesday 18th May from 10:30am-4:30pm at Here East for their first UK event!

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