A women sat down on a table as she is scanned by a computer

#HackOnWheels – Help us build the wheelchairs of the future

Help disrupt disability! #HackOnWheels is the movement to inspire a community of wheelchair users, hackers, designers and makers to create the world’s first open source, fully customisable wheelchair.

#HackOnWheels are hosting their first UK event event on Wednesday 18 May at Here East, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – Register on the #HackOnWheels website to attend

In this blog post, #HackOnWheels founder and Scope’s Vice Chair Rachael Wallach tells us more about the event, and how and why you should get involved.

Rachael Wallach smiling for the camera
#HackOnWheels founder Rachael Wallach

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.

The story behind #HackOnWheels

The story behind #HackOnWheels starts a few years ago when I was backpacking around South East Asia and India. 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 every length, angle, contour has been tailored to meet my individual needs; it has literally been made for me.

A 3D model of a wheelchair user
3D printing in action

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 low 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, which explained that digital fabrication is a way to manufacture customisable items more cheaply. Based on my experiences backpacking, I wondered whether 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.

In December I was on holiday in Jordan and by coincidence I came across Refugee Open Ware who use digital fabrication to support refugees. They showed me a 3D printed functional prosthetic hand that had cost them just $39 to make. Thinking it was impossible I asked about the design costs and they said there were hardly any because they had used an open source design shared online by an organisation called e-NABLE. They had just spent a bit of time adapting it so it looked like Ben Ten’s hand, the favourite cartoon character of its 5-year-old owner! This idea of combining digital fabrication with open source design really excited me prompting the question; could we do the same for wheelchairs?

3 men looking at a projector with some designs on
Some of the hackers get to work

Let’s get hacking

In February I organised a hackathon to explore the idea with BeeTwo, a lab for social innovation backed by the Erste Bank Group, the Technical University Wien and open knowledge Austria. It was held in the Happylab Vienna, which is a local ‘maker-space’. The challenge was to develop design concepts for a fully customisable wheelchair that could be made in a publicly accessible maker-space from off the shelf materials.

The 30 participants included wheelchair users, students, coders, artists, engineers, makers, product designers, management consultants and bike makers and they created four 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 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 fit the exact contours of the user. It used a 3D body scan of their back and bottom and sent this information to a CNC mill, which cut a piece of high density foam into an impression of their body.

The next hackathons

We want to establish a community of wheelchair users, hackers and makers to create, refine, adapt and share designs and 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 challenge prizes and competitions to support people to refine the designs and prototype them. Once we have our first makeable open source designs we can start sharing them online and developing a library of designs.

If that’s got you excited and inspired then join our event on 18 May at Here East in the Olympic Park to help create the first open source fully customizable wheelchair!

Visit www.hackonwheels.org to find out more about how you can get involved.