16 September 2015 10:20:45 IST

A three-wheeler that’s giving the disabled better traction

The all-terrain wheelchair is the result of the coming together of MIT design and frugal Indian manufacturing

This three-wheeler is an off-roader with a difference. Rather than serve the adventure-seekers, this all-terrain vehicle enables the seriously disadvantaged to get back into the mainstream.

The brainchild of Amos Winter, Director of the Global Engineering and Research Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC) is being manufactured at the Pithampur plant of Pinnacle Industries, India’s largest supplier of seats for trucks and buses.

What is unique is that every moving part of the chair is a standard bicycle part. This not only cuts the cost to around ₹10,000 a unit (from over ₹1 lakh in the US) but also makes it easy to maintain and repair in non-urban areas, where its utility will be the highest.

The design incorporates a variable drive-train that enables the driver to control the torque by using two hand-operated levers. Global Research Innovation Technology (GRIT), a Boston-based NGO, owns the patent for the lever drive and has the distribution rights.

On bumpy surface too

“This wheelchair can ply not only on smooth surfaces, but also on dirt roads and bumpy surfaces,” explains Sudhir Mehta, Chairman, Pinnacle, adding that field-tests in villages have yielded good results.

In 2011, the ₹200-crore company teamed up with GRIT to manufacture the LFC on a no-profit-no-loss basis. The product has been field-tested in East Africa and Guatemala, and is now poised for global distribution. At Pithampur, Pinnacle has an installed capacity to manufacture around 300 chairs a month.

“Last year, the first full year of commercial production, we made around 2,000 units, nearly half of which were sold overseas. We now want to ramp this up to 500 units a month,” says Mehta. The Harvard Business Review, in its June issue, carried an article on LFC — co-authored by Harvard Dons Amos Winter and Vijay Govindrajan — titled ‘Engineering reverse innovations – principles for creating successful products for emerging markets’.

Joint effort

“Magic happens when academic talent, corporate manufacturing know-how and the ability of an NGO come together. The combination can help solve multitudes of social problems,” says Mehta.

Given that the production is still largely unorganised, there are no reliable statistics on the size of the Indian market for wheelchairs. But there is no major player yet, and most of the units are imported from China.