Wired Magazine Article

Wired Magazine Article

Kate Reed



3-D Printing Helped These Teens Build a Smarter Wheelchair

SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD MOHAMMAD SAYED wanted more from his wheelchair. So he started hacking the thing.

Sayed is a student at NuVu, an experimental high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts where students learn practical skills through hands-on projects, and for one his projects, he used a 3-D printer to transform his wheelchair into something more useful. He and his classmates added a laptop tray and a canopy, and, most radically, they rebuilt the chair so that Sayed could propel it with a rowing motion rather than the traditional push. 

The project is just one way that 3-D printing is remaking the way we build—and modify—the stuff we use in our daily lives. This includes everything from wheelchairs to musical instruments to guns. Using cheap 3-D printed parts, Sayed and his classmates transformed a simple wheelchair into something very different—not to mention far more valuable—and they’re open sourcing their work, so that anyone can 3-D print the components themselves.

The students didn’t invent the concept of a rowing wheelchair. It’s already in use in the GoGrit, a wheelchair designed for use on rough terrain, and by NASA engineer Salim Nasser’s Rowheels project. The idea dates back to at least 1990, says Steve Spohn, the chief operating officer of videogame accessibility organization AbleGamers. But making it easy to convert an existing wheelchair by using a 3-D printer could make this type of chair more affordable and accessible. 

According to the NuVu students, each part costs only about $2 or $3 to print. The only non-printable part is a bar that can be purchased at Home Depot for a few dollars more. And that could be a big deal for some wheelchair users. “If you are someone with atrophy and the muscles you would use to push with your biceps are getting weaker, allowing for different types of movement could mean the difference between continuing in a manual wheelchair or being forced to convert to a power wheelchair,” he says. 

‘Start Small, Go Big’

NuVu students attend the school full-time for three months or more, but instead of taking traditional classes like math and English, they spend their time working on hands-on projects ranging from creating animated videos to cobbling together custom robots. Each term kicks off with a one week crash-course in technical skills such as computer-aided drafting, 3-D printing, laser cutting and computer programming.

Then they are given a design problem to work on for the rest of the term. The wheelchair parts were actually part of several different projects. “Actually, I wanted to make a wheelchair that flies and go under water,” Sayed jokes. “But [my teacher] said we need to start small and then go big.”

So Sayed dialed that back to a more humble request: a better laptop tray for his chair. “I had looked for trays outside before,” he says, “but never found one that fit my needs.” Soon, he and his team started coming up with more ideas, like a more accessible compartment for storing cargo, and a canopy to protect Sayed from the elements. But the biggest idea was the rowing mechanism.

No Going Back

While more feasible than Sayed’s original idea for a flying wheelchair, the project was still rather ambitious. “Our project ended up being a very mechanical problem that none of us had every encountered before: figuring out how to make our own ratcheting mechanism,” says another student, Kate Reed, 16, referring to the mechanism that enables Sayed to propel the chair forward with each rowing motion without also pulling himself backwards when he pulls the rowing bar back towards him.

“A mechanical engineer could probably have looked at it and figured out the angles to make the mechanism work. But none of us are mechanical engineers, so we went with the guess-and-check method.”

After several tries, they came up with a mechanism that seemed to work. But when they showed it to Sayed, he pointed out that the wheelchair couldn’t go in reverse. So the students went back to the drawing board.

The Real Challenge

They ended up modifying a traditional brake handle so that, instead of braking, it switches the chair from forward into reverse. “When one mechanism is engaged you can move forward, then when you pull the brake you can switch the mechanisms,” says 17-year-old Daniel Nathaniel Tong.

Tong and the other students say the project taught them a lot about product design and engineering. But more importantly, they say, they learned to work as a team. “Before NuVu, I didn’t do well in groups, because as a creative person you always push your own ideas,” Sayed explains. “Communication was sometimes a challenge, but now I’ve learned.”