When Intelligent Mobility International (IMI) received the Breakthrough Award from Popular Mechanics in 2008 for their wheelchair design, it was not only a triumph for the handicapped, but the design community at large. After all, designing products for the developing world has been one of the most complex and difficult problems facing designers, with precious few success stories to count. Yet IMI’s wheelchair is currently enjoying extraordinary success in Guatemala, where the company initiated a pilot program earlier this year. That’s because co-founders Rudy Roy, Ben Sexson, Dan Oliver and Charlie Pyott collaborated closely with Guatemalans to produce a simple, inexpensive chair made from common materials found worldwide – most notably bicycle parts. It’s as simple as it is elegant, necessary as it is affordable, and it’s being embraced over American-made models that cost 10 times as much. “I can train sports better with this chair,” says Marco Sacba, a 16 year-old with low brain paralysis. “It’s very light and comfortable.”

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The IMI product with paint and finished upholstery.
Photo by Juan Carlos Noguera

The chair was initially developed in a classroom at California’s Institute of Technology (Caltech), which specializes in engineering. Three years ago, Dr. Ken Pickar, a veteran of Bell Laboratories and GE, was teaching a class in basic design when some of his students came to him and asked him to initiate a class devoted to developing countries. “They wanted to design for people living on $1 per day,” says Pickar, who’s now on the board of IMI.

Thus he established Engineering Design of Products for the Developing World, which not only explored empathic design, but sound business models for third-world markets. More importantly, he worked with two other Caltech professors to facilitate a program that would put his students in touch with design students at Raphael Landivar University in Guatemala. “It’s absolutely essential that you understand the culture in which your customer dwells,” says Pickar. “That requires a lot more listening than talking.”

Roy and Sexson quickly learned that Guatemala not only has a large population of disabled (approximately 55,000), but that wheelchairs are extremely rare. “A lot of people are forced to get around in wheelbarrows or carts,” says Dan Oliver, a Caltech student who joined shortly after the project began in September 2006. “Or they just drag themselves across the ground when they can.”

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The Transitions foundation workshop where shop workers use the wheelchair prototypes as they work.
Photo by Juan Carlos Noguera

American-made wheelchairs are available, but in a country where families make an average of $200 per month, it’s virtually impossible to buy a standard, non-motorized wheelchair from the US, which cost around $400 - $2000. And even when they do get an American chair, they rarely last says Oliver. “They’re made for hospitals, which have smooth floors,” he explains. “So in a place like Guatemala, which has rough terrain, they tend to break down quickly, in less than a month. And most of the parts are all custom-made, so they have to send away for replacement parts, which are expensive.”

It was Ben Sexson’s idea to build a chair entirely out of used bicycle parts, since both wheelchairs and bicycles use similar frames and wheels. Thus the team began to piece together a chair made from used mountain bikes, which if successful, would mean that they could eventually tap into the millions of used bicycles around the world. But as Oliver explains, that idea didn’t pan out – at least not at first. Their prototype proved to be unsafe and uncomfortable for long term use, and used bicycles turned out to be more difficult than they imagined. “Bikes are all different,” says Oliver who also works as an aerospace engineer. “It’s very hard to get uniformity when you’re working with such a wide range of material.”

“Wheelchairs are actually very complicated,” adds Pickar. They have to be very sturdy, collapsible, adaptable to all sizes and disabilities, and they have to be comfortable.”

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Assembly of a wheelchair in the Transitions workshop.
Photo by Juan Carlos Noguera

Nevertheless, the rotary components of bicycles remained a primary focus for IMI’s design team, which grew exponentially after Roy, Sexson and Oliver graduated. Subsequent prototypes replaced bike frames with inexpensive steel tubing found in Guatemala, and rather than using found parts from mountain bikes, they began using new wheels from a local bike manufacturer. The final, and most successful, prototype was manufactured entirely in Guatemala through a partnership with Transiciones (Transitions), a Guatemalan-based organization that not only helps people with disabilities, but operates its own wheelchair manufacturing and repair facility.

That led to the current model, which consists of a lightweight, welded frame, which is highly adjustable, and a rugged set of wheels that can be assembled with relative ease and cost. (Material cost: $120, retail cost of $280). More importantly, if the wheels, bearings or brakes fail, the customer can take them to any bike shop in the world for repair. “We had a student take a broken chair to a remote village,” says Oliver, “And he was able to replace the bearings for less than $3.”

But it’s not just health care individuals who are monitoring the success of IMI’s chair. As Pickar explains, it has become the “poster child” for Caltech’s design class, which has since partnered with a program called Designmatters at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. For many, the fact that the chair has succeeded where other products have failed suggests that an increasing number of designers are taking a page out of Paul Polak’s Out of Poverty book, which states that the best way to help people in the developing world is not to throw money or products at them, but to give them better ideas. As Pickar says, “The difference between this generation [of designers] and the generation before, is that rather than thinking about working for a large corporation, they’re much more interested in entrepreneurship and working with NGOs. And that’s significant.”

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Testing the chair
Photo by Juan Carlos Noguera

Unfortunately, IMI’s chair still remains the exception rather than the rule. There are perhaps thousands of similar ideas sitting in classrooms around the world, yet few get the chance to see any real world applications, and fewer still make it to the market place. “The problems is that you’re taking something from one universe and trying to put it in another,” explains Pickar. But they’re radically different [universes] with very different languages.”

Today IMI is receiving requests from Africa, India and the US. But for the time being they plan to remain focused on the 55,000 needy clients in Guatemala. In time, however, they hope to provide help to the 20 million handicapped customers around the world, and perhaps expand their purview to larger mobility issues. “Intelligent mobility will remain our focus,” says Oliver. “But there are so many other great ideas that come from these classes that it would be stupid for us not to follow through with them as well.”

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The simple folding mechanism of the wheelchair simplifies transportation without complicating the build.
Photo by Juan Carlos Noguera

For more information, visit Intelligent Mobility International.

Lead and homepage photo of the Transition workshop staff by Juan Carlos Noguera

Posted June 12, 2009