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Transportation of people seated in wheelchairs - best practice

Sarah Jewkes

PMG Conference 2020

2nd-4th November 2020 in Telford. Our annual conference provides an educational programme, industry exhibition and networking events for professionals working in the field of posture and wheeled mobility.

Additive manufacturing for the provision of custom-made head supports

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Khalid Khan

Rehabilitation Engineer


02 January 2020


This report reflects on the presentation by Jonathan Howard at the PMG Conference 2019 about 3D printing for the provision of custom-made head supports. I was keen to attend this presentation because I have felt that some of the design, development and manufacturing processes within special seating in the wheelchair services are rather antiquated and not “moving with the times”, primarily due to financial and time constraints.

It was great to see someone investigating modern manufacturing processes, especially one that has seen a positive impact in the orthotics field.

Jonathan gave a comprehensive overview of additive manufacturing which would have been an excellent introduction for anyone wanting to understand the process. The advantages and disadvantages of the process were covered well, providing an impartial perspective, and supported by useful diagrams.

The research presented was basic and simple to follow, although I feel Jonathan’s case study would have been enhanced by clear pictures and some more information regarding the strength requirements in relation to the headrest. Likewise, the use of finite element analysis (FEA) was mentioned, and I would have liked more detail on that because, in my opinion, it is one of the major advantages of this design and manufacturing process. FEA is a computerised method for predicting how a product reacts to real forces, vibration, load, and other physical effects. It shows whether a product will break or wear out, and whether it works in the way it was designed to do. The virtual process operates by breaking down a real object into a large number (thousands to hundreds of thousands) of finite elements, such as little cubes.  Mathematical equations help predict the behaviour of each element. A computer then adds up all the individual behaviours to predict the overall behaviour of the actual object. The ability to test a 3D computer aided designed model of a headrest on the screen, without the expense of making prototypes or testing rigs, could be a great asset for under funded public services. 

I found a question about costs revealing however, because, although the headrest seemed relatively cheap at £100, this didn’t include approximately 40 hours of labour, nor the upholstered cover which would probably have to be bespoke.

One of the limitations of the process is the size when it comes to the production of parts. To overcome this issue the custom-made headrest was made in two smaller parts. I then wondered about other smaller parts and aspects of wheelchairs that the process could be used for, such as ergonomically designed control knobs, custom-made for the wheelchair user’s hand grip and motor movement.

In the end, although I wasn’t convinced that this was the best manufacturing method for a custom-made headrest, it was an interesting and informative presentation, which led me to think about other components which may be suited to this design and manufacturing process. It has encouraged me to research further in order to possibly provide more options for our service users to improve the control of a wheelchair.

Members of PMG can view Jonathan's presentation by clicking here.

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