Motivation is a global disability charity that provides wheelchairs, training, and services to disabled people in low- and middle-income countries. More than 75 million people worldwide need a wheelchair, and 80% live in developing countries. Motivation partnered with the National Composites Centre (NCC) to design an affordable, comfortable, lightweight, and hygienic wheelchair seat pan concept durable enough to handle tough environmental conditions while being made from sustainable materials that could be sourced locally in these countries.

The NCC and Motivation teams worked together to design and manufacture a prototype composite wheelchair seat pan that can be molded to the user needs, virtually eliminating the stretching of the fabric, and the degradation of the plywood base of past wheelchair models. The NCC’s low-cost tooling solution helps keep manufacturing costs down. Gurit flax fiber and Sicomin Infugreen resin were used in the design allowing for cost savings as the materials require a temperature and cure time that is viable in warm climates. While the prototype seat pan was manufactured at the NCC using resin infusion, the design is flexible enough to allow for wet lay-up to be used for lower-skilled production. The flax material can also be easily replaced with other engineering natural fibers available around the globe, such as jute in Asia or sisal in South America, lowering shipping costs and providing local jobs and economic development opportunities.

“Motivation’s collaboration with the NCC has allowed us to realize 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,” Ian Harris, senior designer at Motivation, said. “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.”

Adam Healey, research engineer at the NCC, added, “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 optimize 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.”