Dyson Fellow Duncan Fitzsimons suspected his folding wheel could change bike design, but he had no idea the impact it could have on design for disability...
Exciting new wheelchair technology being developed by the Royal College of Art in London. They are keen to have your thoughts on the technology and for you to influence the design - www.surveymonkey.com/s/foldingwheels
For many designers there is a 'light bulb moment'. This is the instant when, after months - or even years - of working on a project, something just clicks into place. Duncan Fitzsimons certainly had one of those - it just wasn't quite the one he had imagined.
As a second-year student on the RCA's Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) course, Fitzsimons had been working hard to produce a folding wheel for a bicycle. It was a big challenge, he says, not least because he set out without knowing how it would be achieved and he had been warned 'very, very heavily' that if he couldn't make it work, he would fail. Luckily he made it work.
But it wasn't while working on discovering the solution to his design dilemma that Fitzsimons' moment of professional illumination came. It wasn't even being shortlisted for the Saatchi & Saatchi Award for World Changing Ideas in 2008 that helped the designer to see the light. Rather, it was the reaction to the press attention his design was beginning to receive. Had he considered, more and more people began to ask, that his invention might be applied to wheelchairs as well
Testing the water
Fitzsimons decided to test the water by attending the Mobility Roadshow in 2008. He went, he says, expecting to spend his time looking at what else was on the market and trying to secure meetings with manufacturers. 'What happened was I had an exhausting four days standing glued to my stand, with one person after the next coming to me and asking about the wheel and if they could get involved. By the second or third day the reps from the wheelchair companies were coming to me because their customers had told them to come and see the wheel and find out about it.'
There was a wonderful 'pull and demand' for it, he says, and that excitement convinced him that he was right to change tack. Fitzsimons spent the next 18 months - thanks to support from InnovationRCA, the Wingate Foundation and a Dyson Innovation Fellowship - completing the design of a stronger, lighter foldable wheel design, specifically for use on manual wheelchairs.
'The basic design of a wheelchair hasn't changed in 50 years,' Fitzsimons explains. 'There have been lots and lots of small improvements but if you want to buy a really good wheelchair, you're buying the lightest possible version but the designs are all pretty much the same. What these wheels enable to happen is that when you're not using it, you can put it away in a tiny bag within seconds.'
More choice and freedom
Fitzsimons hopes his design - which reduces the 22 liters of space it takes up when in use by almost half, to 12 liters, when folded - will offer more choice and freedom for future customers, many of whom have told him they don't travel as much as they'd like to, especially by plane. Standard wheelchairs are too bulky to be stored in a plane's overhead locker, he explains, relating a series of horror stories from people who have told him about arriving on holiday only to discover their chair has been fatally damaged in transit.
Even when the frame is small enough to be folded and stored on board, standard wheels still have to be checked in, meaning potentially hours of uncomfortable transit time in 'cheapest of the cheap' chairs provided by the airport.
The design - which attaches to most chairs using industry standard quick-release axles - has been selected as one of Wallpaper magazine and Wolff Olins' 10 Designs for 2010. Fitzsimons is currently looking for investment in the hope that, following current user trials, his new design, tailored specifically to use with standard wheelchairs (and using standard wheelchair tires), will be available to buy before the end of 2010.
Duncan Fitzsimons is the Dyson Innovation Fellow 2010 at the RCA and his folding wheel is a College Selected Work - www.innovation.rca.ac.uka