visibility_off Manual vs. Power - Which Device to Design?

We have some exciting news: The Dynamic Form Lifestyle Device challenge has been updated, and is now accepting powered device entries!To support the Launch Forth community in choosing which design and engineering approaches they would like to take their submission in, we have outlined some historical fun facts about wheelchair design through the years.. We are sharing this so you can understand what has been and what has worked, and come up with your own idea that is even more impactful -- something that is inspiring, desirable, functional, and perhaps groundbreaking.The history of the wheelchair

Let’s be honest: we do not live in an ability-agnostic world. For most of history, wheelchairs were custom-built, expensive, and highly limited in functionality. Very few people had access to wheelchairs or lived in a place where wheelchairs could be used.

Only in the past 40-50 years have we begun to see a willingness to apply cutting-edge technology to accessibility. What we consider a “wheelchair” today is in many ways based on mostly incremental improvements of designs from the late 1800s. 

After World War II, the demand created by returning veterans with disabilities sparked the development of power wheelchairs (those powered by a motor, rather than by a human). Yet, to this day, the vast majority of wheelchair user remain loyal to manual wheelchairs, accounting for 70% of all wheelchair use.

Manual Wheelchair

Helio-A7.jpgWhen we say “wheelchair,” most people think of manual wheelchairs that are powered by the user’s hands as he/she pushes the drive wheels forward or as another human pushes the wheelchair from behind. Once upon a time, manual wheelchairs were made of wood or cane. Today’s manual wheelchairs are generally made of steel (“standard” weight class ~18 kg) or aluminum (“light weight” ~13-18 kg). They are designed to be portable (such as the foldable cross-frame originally introduced in the 1930s) and compact for maneuverability in interior spaces like indoor hallways or elevators.

Power WheelchairF3-Angle.jpgAny wheelchair that includes a power source beyond what a human provides is considered a “power” chair. Most power chairs are propelled primarily by a electric direct system  with a 24 V rechargeable battery system. Another type of power chair, the push-rim activated power-assist wheelchair, assists the user’s applied force with the help of a motor. Similar to vehicles, the location of the drive wheels matters to design and maneuverability, with most power chairs utilizing rear- or center-wheel drive. Power chairs utilize  advancements in electronics (like setting the speed or acceleration) and controls (like dictating direction with head movement or breath actuation).

WeightLighter weightHeavier (extra weight due to motor, battery)
CostLower costMore expensive (motor, battery)
Maintenance RequirementsLow maintenanceHigh maintenance (powertrain)
PortabilityMore portable (foldable, compact design)Less portable (motor and battery can be heavy)
Physical requirementsHigh physical requirements (user must provide propulsion, which can lead to injuries due to repetitive motion)Lower physical requirements (powertrain provides propulsion)
ComfortLess comfortableMore comfortable (separating the chair from the drivetrain allows for improved ergonomics)
StabilityLess stableMore stable (heavier design)

We won’t tell you which to choose but whichever you decide to go with remember your design should be: inclusive, supportive of an active lifestyle, sleek (or sexy) and designed with a user-first approach to make sure that this device is a form of self expression for the end user!Happy designing and we are excited to see what you come up with for the Dynamic Form lifestyle Device Challenge.


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