A couple of years ago I saw a BBC documentary on the struggle Andrew Slorance, wheelchair bound himself, and his wife had in designing a carbon fibre monocoque wheelchair and getting it to market. They had sunk all their money into producing a prototype, and then another prototype. You felt for this pair, the process was so expensive: to get a protoype to test even was incredibly difficult and meant finding shops in remote industrial parks in the centre of Scotland that could even work with carbon fibre. I remember thinking at the time that good design is not its own reward. Nevertheless, they persisted.
The gist is that the basic monocoque is cast each time for each individual according to their needs: backrest size, seat width and depth, leg length. Then there are stability adjustments that locate the centre of gravity. I remember in the documentary they had problems with it tipping over until one had learned how to judge where one's centre of gravity actually was. This appeared to be the major stumbling block to the design being picked up for manufacture, that and its cost.
Other options are the wheel size, the size of the rim you push the wheels with, lights, guards and various add-on things.
It is smooth, it is clean, it is quite glamorous engineering. The glamorous Sophie Morgan, all tawny blond hair and beauty, is the Carbon Black ambassador and inhabits both her chair and the website.
Carbon Black was shortlisted for a design award from the London Design Museum in 2012 and has been nominated for a World Technology Network award. A group called SMART:SCOTLAND provided an original grant to build moulds and to market Slorance's prototype, and then in 2012 in the run up to the 1012 Paralympics the project got £350,000 specifically to get this product to a global market. From the Highlands and Islands Enterprise announcement of the grant: 'Using the very latest composite materials and Formula 1 engineering, Carbon Black is set to change perceptions of the wheelchair. Carbon fibre offers incredible strength to weight properties, combined with unprecedented stiffness for optimal energy efficiency. The monocoque design is both lightweight and strong, yet has a minimal appearance, resulting in more person, less wheelchair.'
It has become a big project.
Slorance had been in a wheelchair since his mid-teens when he broke his back. He felt keenly all the problems with standard wheelchairs: their weight, their sheer ugliness, their mechanics, their ugliness, their unresponsiveness, their seeming inability to move along with technology. Perhaps people are so stunned by finding themselves in a wheelchair that it cows them into inert acceptance. The wheelchair so separates them from, in Slorance's case, normal teenaged dashing about, that it must seem often to be an instrument of torture.
Carbon Black weighs 7.5 kg including the wheels: this is the result of using carbon fibre with its huge strength to weight ratio. The fact that Formula 1 technology keeps being mentioned indicates something of the cost of such a wheelchair. Of course it is a wonderful material, warm to touch and mouldable; the launch price was £7,800 and I have seen other prices nearer £12,000. The Carbon Black System tumblr blog is full of ways to get subsidies for this price, such as access to work allowances, NHS vouchers and so on. This is a grand site, much newsier than the formal site. It looks like they sell one a week.