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Are We Asking the Right Questions When Evaluating Ultralightweight Manual Chairs?

By Laurie Watanabe – May 01, 2014

In 2010, Mobility Management published a story discussing the most-buzzed-about materials used in ultralightweight manual wheelchairs. “Clash of the Titans: Aluminum vs. Titanium” remains one of our most-read stories four years later, in part because of the strong feelings that many consumers have about titanium.

Are those sometimes-obsessive feelings justified? Four years later, are ATPs, clinicians and consumers asking the right questions when examining ultralight chairs?

Is it (still) all about weight?

Back when consumers struggled to propel steel-framed wheelchairs, the dream of a lighter chair was self explanatory. When manufacturers first moved from steel to other materials — aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber — they saw dramatic weight savings. But today when manufacturers introduce an ultralightweight chair that weighs less, they’re typically talking about having shaved ounces from the previous generation rather than pounds.

So given the typical frame weights of today’s ultralight chairs, should weight be the number-one concern?

“No,” says Josh Anderson, VP of product & brand management, TiLite. “It is not my number-one priority, and I’m a quad who transports his chair in and out of a car. I don’t think it is the number-one concern for other chair riders or clinicians, either. Weight is just one of several concerns. It should not be treated as a be-all-end-all.”

Wheelchair user Alan Ludovici, design project engineer for Ki Mobility, concurs: “Many consumers and clinicians still consider weight to be the primary requirement of a wheelchair. Today there are so many chair options in the market around 16 lbs. that we need to start looking beyond just weight. With weight already addressed, we now have the opportunity to pay more attention to these essential factors.”

Mark Greig, VP of research & development for Sunrise Medical, also points out that there’s a practical limit to how lightweight a frame can be.

“The weight of the frame is just a portion of the overall weight of the chair,” he notes. “By the time you put a cushion and a backrest on it and all that, the frame constitutes 15 to 20 percent of the weight of the overall chair. So shaving a little bit of weight off the frame doesn’t get you that much.”

Greig estimates that manufacturers could probably reduce current frame weights a little more in the future, but cautions, “At some point, you start compromising the durability of the product.”

Thomas Whelan, VP of product development at Ki Mobility, adds that the frame isn’t the only part of the chair that needs examining.

“The frame is only a small portion of the weight of a wheelchair,” he explains. “Most of the weight of an ultralight wheelchair is in the ‘other’ components. If we want to make lighter chairs, we need to look for design improvements in these components.”

The new gold standards

So if weight should not be the priority in choosing the right chair, what should the priority be?

Jeff Adams, president/CEO of Icon Wheelchairs and a wheelchair user himself, says, “The weight of the chair can be very important, but we strongly believe that it should be prioritized behind fit and configuration/geometry. The only time a pound or two makes a difference is in transport weight — when the chair is being lift ed/loaded.”

Ludovici listed several factors that should be examined: “Propulsion efficiency: How much effort will it take to push the chair around for 12 hours? Ride quality: Is the shock and vibration from riding the chair going to cause discomfort and fatigue? Ease of use: Do the armrests and wheel locks work for the user? Can they get close to things? Can they transfer from the chair? How easily can they get it in and out of their car?”

“To me the most important aspect is fit,” Anderson says. “A person’s wheelchair must be fitted correctly, like a wheeled prosthetic. Proper wheelchair selection and fitting must be focused on the individual and his or her specific characteristics. This should include the person’s clinical needs, lifestyle requirements and physical capabilities. So weight becomes a single aspect that should be considered among other important aspects leading to a well-selected wheelchair. Other important aspects are frame type (rigid/folding), frame style (monotube/dual tube), level of adjustability, frame material, and wheelchair options that optimize the wheelchair experience.”

Brent Hatch, director of product management, Sunrise Medical, says overall performance in multiple environments has been a key goal.

“We talked about weight being important, and it certainly is to someone who propels 2,000 to 4,000 times a day,” he says. “We’re also looking at how the chair and the seating system interact, how the user interacts with propulsion, the efficiency of the whole motion and how the chair rolls and performs in turning and in close environments — not just over a long haul of a thousand meters, but how does it work inside an office or a home? Performance goes to speed and light weight, but you also start to think of how people use the chair, and the most highly used function within a small environment. The stroke distance is oft en short: 10, 15, 20 feet. So how is the usability of the chair moving in and out of different areas?”

The titanium-vs.-aluminum question

While the “titanium vs. aluminum” concept may be outdated thanks to evolving engineering practices, many consumers still believe the outcome of the chair hinges on its materials.

“Yes, titanium has been synonymous with ‘ultra-light weight’ because of the high-strength characteristics — so you can use less material,” Anderson says. “But again, it is not just about weight. Titanium is also vibration dampening and is a material that lends itself to design innovation. Yes, there are other factors that affect weight. Weight is affected by the overall design of the chair, how any material is incorporated, what frame style is used (mono-tube or dualtube), well-designed clamps used instead of bolts that weaken a chair, etc. Weight is also affected in both directions by additional options that are selected to enhance the entire chair experience, such as seat backs, cushions, wheels, tires, handrims, wheel locks and more.”

“Titanium has been trumpeted as some kind of miracle material in the wheelchair industry for close to 20 years now, but there are more appropriate materials that can achieve the same weight benchmarks, and better,” Adams says. “An examination of the bicycle industry is telling : Titanium had a brief moment in the sun for a few years in the mid ’90s, but really isn’t used much at all anymore.

“Something that could help achieve lower weights without compromising durability is sophisticated design paired with pure engineering, meaning that once the design phase is done, the design then goes through a formal engineering process, using Computer Assisted Drawing (CAD), Finite Element Analysis (FEA), and realworld testing (RESNA standards and other). This will allow the manufacturer to fine-tune what materials are used, and when and where material can be taken away from the various parts of the wheelchair without compromising strength or durability.”

Of the love affair that some ultralight users have for titanium, Hatch says, “I think there is a group of consumers who automatically [prefers titanium] maybe because of the price point. They make assumptions around that. But when you start asking questions — like what are you really after, is it the lightest weight? — and if you take that next step or two and look out there and educate yourself on how they’re being used or the design techniques, you can achieve a lot more than maybe 10 or 15 years ago just with the materials processes.”

Greig suggests that consumers’ gravitation to titanium might be caused by something else: “They want to distill it down into one fact. They want to simplify the choices and say, ‘Titanium is better than aluminum. It’s more expensive and that’s what I want.’ Or ‘I want the lightest-weight chair.’ They try to distill it down to one thing that they can compare against and make their decision on, when in fact wheelchairs are much more than the materials they’re made out of. It’s how it performs, how it allows them to transfer in and out, how it functions for that person. Those things are hard to quantify, but probably more important than the materials or the weight of the chair.”

Focusing on the critical factors

So if seating & mobility teams take frame weight out of the equation — assuming that the chairs being considered are of comparable weights — what criteria should they be using to make their decisions?

In addition to factors mentioned earlier, Anderson says, “The lifestyle part of selecting a chair is truly important. Chair selection starts with the person. Where do they live? What is the weather like — and I don’t mean making the chair 2″ wider to accommodate a winter coat! Do they commute to work or work from home? Do they have a car or a van? Are they active users that travel quite a bit, or are they more homebodies? The bottom line is how you select, sit and fit in the chair is the greatest predictor of performance, comfort and independence over the long term, and these processes must be centered around the needs of the person and his or her lifestyle, and then matching those needs with the chair selection process.”

“We believe other elements like adjustability and suspension are game changers,” Adams says. “Incorporating adjustable suspension in a way that doesn’t compromise efficiency, performance or weight makes the experience of using a wheelchair entirely different and takes ‘vibration management’ to the next level. It’s not about dropping into skate parks or going off foot-high curbs; it’s about cracks in the sidewalk and crossing over thresholds from one room to another.

“In average use, wheelchairs don’t achieve speeds high enough to create ‘vibration’ — that effect usually only happens in bicycles at speeds well in excess of any that could be safely achieved in an everyday wheelchair. Wheelchairs typically see one-time concussive forces — sometimes in rapid succession, but still not ‘vibration’ — which we believe are better managed with suspension rather than a frame material that amplifies vibrations less than others.”

Whelan points out that ongoing research on ultralights and the propulsion process (see sidebar) will ultimately enable engineers to continue to fine-tune and improve their creations.

“Weights will continue to drop, though not at the same rate,” he says. “A wheelchair is a mechanical system, and its performance refl ects the sum of the design, not just the choice of frame material. More research, new test methods, new manufacturing techniques and new materials will allow us to improve a wheelchair’s propulsion efficiency, ride quality and ease of use.”

Greig says that ultralight conversations at Sunrise Medical have been focused on “How do we ensure that someone using our products can continue to use our products for as long as possible? It’s a function of the chair, but it’s also a function of the seating system and how the seating system interacts with the chair. I’m not sure that’s what [consumers] are thinking.”

And in the engineering discussions of design and performance, manufacturers should also pay attention to the importance of social factors, two of our experts said.

“Color is very important to the pediatric consumers and the clinicians who provide care to them,” Adams says. “We haven’t offered color options to date because of the difficulty it presents in the manufacturing process, but we’ve recently reached an agreement with a custom powder-coating shop that will paint our chassis and front end in up to 16 colors, with more that can be added. We’ll officially launch our custom paint program in the late spring.”

“It’s not often mentioned,” Anderson says, “but I feel another very important lifestyle factor is self-image, and the chair you use can impact your self-image. If you look in the mirror and you look active and mobile, then you will feel active and mobile. No one is defined by their chair, but the chair — just like clothing — can infl uence the way you feel about yourself.

“Without us fully realizing it, our chairs can sometimes put up barriers. I believe that if you are using an older-style ultralightweight chair that closely resembles a hospital chair, then you will naturally feel more disabled. But if you’re using a chair that more closely resembles a bike or modern sculpture, then you will feel more empowered.”

Educating & empowering consumers

Despite expert opinions to the contrary, clinicians and ATPs still work with plenty of consumers who think the weight of their ultralight chair is the most important factor. Therefore, it’s not enough to create an ultralight system that fits a consumer’s clinical needs and lifestyle; clinicians and ATPs are also faced with teaching the client why those criteria are so important.

“In terms of how important the fit of a chair is,” Adams says, “it helps to compare it to a pair of baseball cleats or hockey skates. They could be the best and lightest on the market, but if they’re two sizes too big, the weight benefit is outweighed, pun intended, by the lost performance because of poor fit: Two sizes too small, and the risk of injury presents itself. Both of those cases are paralleled when a wheelchair is over- or under-sized.

“As a wheelchair user, I would choose to have a properly setup chair that fits over a lighter chair that didn’t fit or that was improperly configured — every time.”