Motivation works with the National Composites Centre on a wheelchair seat design that's robust, affordable and made from sustainable materials.

9 June 2021

Motivation’s designers have been working with the National Composites Centre (NCC) to design and manufacture a wheelchair seat made entirely from sustainable, green materials. The concept is better for the environment and could provide longer lasting postural management for wheelchair users.

Our team are always looking for innovative ways to solve the challenges of wheelchair provision in low- and middle-income countries. So when our Senior Designer, Ian, met up with the NCC and heard about their work with bio-based composite materials, he had an idea. What if we could design a new wheelchair seat pan that would be robust and long-lasting, affordable to produce and made from green materials that could be locally sourced?

Composites are well-known for their durability, strength and lightweight properties. When they are made from natural fibres, like flax, and bio-resins from seaweed, they also offer a sustainable alternative. Another bonus is that they can be moulded easily to create bespoke shapes. Together, these qualities are an attractive option for manufacturing wheelchair seating.

At the moment, our wheelchair cushions are made from foam and sit on either fabric slung seats or a plywood base. These provide postural support and pressure management that is vital to wheelchair users who are at risk of developing pressure sores and other medical issues, leading to hospitalisation, increasing healthcare costs, reduced quality of life and even death.

However, the constant and prolonged use of fabric seats can result in stretching that compromises user posture and the plywood base may degrade over time. The sculpted foam cushion may also degrade or become unhygienic due to hot, humid climates and potential soiling. It is also possible that a separate cushion may be lost.

Together, Motivation and the NCC designed and manufactured a prototype composite wheelchair seat pan that was uniquely moulded to a user’s specific dimensions. The result is a surface that provides long-term postural control and pressure management and can be covered in a thin foam liner cushion. This new design is lighter and more durable than our current seating options. Importantly, it provides ‘built-in’ physical support and postural control for the user, which could improve mobility, health and quality of life.

Ian Harris, Senior Designer at Motivation, says:

“Motivation’s collaboration with the NCC has allowed us to realise the production of a prototype seating pan that had existed as just an idea in our heads. Together we’ve been able to create an exciting concept for a solution to real-world challenges faced by wheelchair users in low- and middle-income countries.

"The use of green composites could be a game-changer for the assistive technology sector and creates a challenge to ensure more sustainable practices through innovative thinking. We’re grateful to the NCC team for supporting our important work to keep improving the provision of wheelchairs around the world.”

Adam Healey, Research Engineer at the National Composites Centre, says:

“This is the first ever wheelchair seat pan made entirely from green materials for the developing world market, so it’s been a really exciting and rewarding project for us to work on with Motivation.

“There is so much scope to optimise this design further, and many opportunities to explore the end-of-life potential for this design so that the seat pans can be easily recycled, bringing even more environmental benefits. This opens the door for us to make more wheelchair components out of green composites.”

Notes

The NCC is a world class innovation centre in the design and manufacture of composites that brings together the best minds and best technologies to solve the most complex engineering challenges. This R&D project was funded by Sustainable Composites, a partnership between the NCC and the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) – two of seven centres of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult – working to develop the next generation of sustainable composite materials by harnessing the UK’s world-leading composites research and technology development capabilities. It is accelerating the development of new recycling technologies for composites in the UK and creating new sustainable composites made from bio-based materials.

Gurit Flax Fibre and the Sicomin Infugreen resin were selected as the base materials to demonstrate the new design. They do not require high-cost manufacturing techniques often used in composite manufacture and require a cure time and temperature that is suitable and sustainable within those areas. The flax can also easily be traded out for different engineering natural fibres for different locations, such as jute for Asia or sisal for South America, bringing the manufacture to local areas which cuts down on shipping costs and upskills local people.

The overall costs to manufacture the green composite seat are slightly more however the long-term benefits of quality of life and durability completely outweigh the increase in production costs. Biocomposite materials are also more durable for constant use in aqueous or dusty environments, improving sustainability through extended service life.