Changing the notion of wheelchair motion
Coming from the exciting and fast-paced world of Formula One, Mike Spindle, Managing Director of Trekinetic, aimed to change the idea of how wheelchairs were configured when he brought his engineering design expertise to the mobility industry way back in 2006. Since then, the company has worked day in, day out manufacturing its innovative wheelchairs. As the company prepares to launch the Mk II version of the bestselling, ultralight GTE powerchair, Mike discussed inspirations, industry exhibitions and future ambitions for Trekinetic.
What inspired you to become involved in the mobility industry?
Many people become involved in the mobility industry because of a personal mobility issue or a connection to somebody with one, however, for me it was originally only about the engineering.
Originally, our company were toolmakers to the motor industry and later, as that declined in the UK, we worked in Formula One companies. Because we had sophisticated CNC machinery, we could produce complex 3D components.
Formula One was fun but as a business model, it is not ideal as it is always very busy from Friday afternoon to Sunday but often quiet during the rest of the week. Instead, we started to think about using all our expertise to create our own product and it was by chance I came across a cool looking teenager in a not-so-cool looking wheelchair.
Immediately, as someone who has always been involved in motion, it seemed to me that two things were wrong with the chair. Firstly, it was the wrong way around, with the big wheels at the back rather than the front. Secondly, it was on a framework chassis, which most contemporary vehicles are not.
That was in 2000. We spent the next six years developing our first wheelchair, the Trekinetic K-2, using the knowledge we had working in the motor & Formula One industry and applying it to the mobility industry.
How did you approach designing a wheelchair for the first time?
Purposely, we did not look at other wheelchairs on the market. I wanted us to approach the very concept of a wheelchair with a fresh pair of eyes, as if one had never been created before. Complete innovation.
That was one of the best decisions we ever made in my mind as we didn’t become influenced by prior art.
What changes did you make to the initial design that were influenced from your motor experience?
The majority of vehicles are designed using something called a Monocoque chassis, which means there is no framework foundation or chassis, as you might find with a vintage car. Instead, one part is made really strong, such as the body shell, then everything else is attached to that, getting rid of the additional framework chassis.
Our early prototypes were based on an aluminium racing car seats, that we bolted all the rest of the components to. Eventually, it turned into a carbon fibre chair, which is naturally warm and can be moulded into an approximation of the human form. This was when we really tapped into our racing experience.
By having it moulded to a person’s natural shape, it meant it did not require a large number of cushions. For most wheelchairs, the point between the back and the posterior is usually a right-angle shape, however, the human body is curved in that area. By making the seat curved, which is easily done with carbon fibre, we created a seat that approximates the human shape, changing the whole pressure loading for the end-user and making it more comfortable.
Fortunately, thanks to our background, we had the knowledge and tools to create our own optimised parts, rather than having to rely on catalogue pieces.
Why did you feel the design of wheelchairs were the wrong way around?
When a user propels a rear-drive chair, they are pushing mostly downwards and potentially pushing themselves out of the seat. The action also causes their head to face downwards rather than straight-ahead.
When you push on a front-wheel drive wheelchair, you instead push between the wheels’ horizontal sector and the back of the seat. This system has been proven about 30 percent more efficient and so much so, the International Olympic Committee banned a racing version of our chair from competing in the London 2012 Olympics as being an unfair advantage!
“Some big companies have the marketing budgets to sell products that may not be completely extraordinary and people will still buy them. We knew as a small, fledging company, our product had to be exemplary from day one.”
Did you find there were any drawbacks designing a wheelchair this way?
We quickly found out that there was a good reason why front-wheeled propulsion is not widely used and when I found it, it was probably one of the worst moments of my professional career.
Basically, the chair would not go in a straight line! At the time in 2003, there were five patents that we had applied for, so we were keeping the technology and testing secret. We did some market research with a large group of wheelchair users and discovered that by having three wheels and having the castor at the rear, the chair fishtailed. It looked like game over.
Rear propelled chairs with two casters are far more agreeable to just naturally going straight, but with three wheels, they won’t. The whole project stopped for a year until we could fix the issue; eventually, we tried a sprung-loaded, detent on the rear wheel that would click into place only when it was going straight. To my amazement, it completely solved the problem.
We aren’t the first to make a three-wheel, front-drive propelled chair but I think we’re the first to make it work.
As a small, UK-manufacturer, how did you get the product out there to the market?
We launched the manual K2 at the Mobility Roadshow in 2006. They took a big chance on us because they were keen to have something different for the visitors to see.
Like all shows, they were looking for an attraction. It was a big gamble for us as well, but we were confident we had a product that could grab visitors’ attention.
Some big companies have the marketing budgets to sell products that may not be completely extraordinary and people will still buy them. We knew as a small, fledging company, our product had to be exemplary from day one.
Fortunately, it was a gamble that paid off and after that first show, we had 13,000 views on our website that weren’t there before.
What do you find is the most effective channel for your company to reach customers?
We work with our dealer network to sell the chairs, but customers generally tend to discover our chairs through word-of-mouth and just coming across it on the streets, of which there are about 850 in circulation.
Getting our chairs into visitor attractions, at no cost to the venue owners, is our next initiative.
You have said you have decided not to exhibit at Naidex this year? Why have Trekinectic taken that decision?
We exhibited at Naidex last year and it was a good show, however, after discussions, we made a business decision not to exhibit again this year.
I imagine most exhibitors do shows with the expectation that they will see a spike in sales, but with Trekinetic, nearly all our sales come from word of mouth and social media.
Weighing up everything, we decided to explore other avenues, although I am sure they will have another good show this year. On reflection though, I am sad for visitors who are expecting to experience Trekinetic there and that Naidex and ourselves didn’t try harder to make that work.
Will you do Naidex in the future?
We will review all options next year and we wish Naidex and everyone who exhibits great success. The UK mobility industry needs all the help it can get to ensure we can keep meeting people’s needs.
As an exhibitor, what is it you look for from exhibition organisers?
It should come as no surprise that as an exhibiting business, the first thing we want from any show we do are visitors that are likely to be interested in our product.
At the Mobility Roadshow, we always had a good number of visitors at the stand because we knew that they were there to see mobility vehicles and were undoubtedly going to be interested in our range.
Not just getting the visitors but also getting the wider media or celebrities to attend is always very valuable for exhibitors as well. Being able to get national newspapers, the BBC or a celebrity onto stands and getting a couple of minutes on TV, a piece in a news article or a tweet from a popular celeb really helps deliver something that, as exhibitors, we would struggle to achieve outside the exhibition.
What do you feel are some of the most important factors for running a successful show in this industry?
With the rise of new technologies and channels that allow companies to target their promotions to end-users at good value, I imagine it is a tough time for industry shows and exhibitions.
In regards to the mobility industry, there needs to be a willingness to be flexible with companies, especially some of the smaller companies in the industry.
One of the things we used to like at the Mobility Roadshow was that they ran something called the ‘Marketplace’, where they would give small stalls to companies that couldn’t afford the kind of stands we could afford. These were the type of companies selling smaller, low-cost aids, such as small plastic pill boxes but were still very relevant to visitors.
Customer focused companies like ours also have to be selective and we do a lot of data collection. We don’t invest in anything promotion-wise that’s unlikely to be cost effective. With shows, we look at other exhibitors, because we know that’s exactly what visitors do before making the decision to attend. With mobility shows, most visitors will be in or representing somebody in a wheelchair. They are the cornerstone that makes up the visitor profile. That means the show needs to have as many wheelchair and/or converted vehicle manufactures as possible in my opinion.
If it’s a very small percentage, coupled with no weekend day, we know from our own analysis that visitor numbers may likely be low.
I understand that organising and running these exhibitions is by no means cheap, however, finding a way to make the shows accessible to smaller, fledging companies and start-ups is something I think all shows should endeavour to do and I think visitors will thank them for it.
Will Trekinectic exhibit any other shows this year?
There are a range of shows and other options that we are actively considering investing in.
There are the various Kidz-to-Adultz shows which we have looked at and we have done Rehacare for a number of years. We are also looking at getting our powerchairs onto Motability and there is a show in Bologna, Italy, who are very keen to have us attend. We also did very well at MS Life in 2016.
We have thought about Trade Days as we look to increase our dealer network as well.
Do you think there is space for a show to fill the gap left by the Mobility Roadshow, focusing primarily on mobility vehicles and end-users?
100 percent. The demise of the Mobility Roadshow has left a gap that I definitely think could be filled. For example, there were scores of converted vehicle manufacturer stands at The Mobility Roadshow, but seemingly fewer at Naidex 2018.
My thoughts would be that it wouldn’t need to be so large and it could start off small but the challenge would be the same faced by all exhibitors; how do you get the people to come to the show and how do you advertise it to them.
From our research, we found it was very hard to reach disabled end-users to get them to attend shows.
Can you tell me more about the GTE MkI?
The GTE Mk I was our first power chair that was completely unique, as it could fit into virtually any non-converted car and weighs 36kg fully assembled; a third to that of conventional powerchairs with this level of capability.
We’ve been producing the GTE Mk I for around five years now and it’s become our best-selling chair, with some very famous customers, including royalty.
The claim to the chair’s fame remains its famous off-road ability and the fact that the front wheels are quick release and the motors are in the wheels. These hub motors are where a lot of the weight is contained, so when these come off, the chair becomes hand lift-able.
When both wheels are off, the foldable, centre tub can fit into most standard cars, meaning people do not need to purchase large, converted vehicles, saving significant costs.
What changes have you introduced for the GTE Mk II?
Ultra-low wheels-on folding is now standard, so with this, it can be hoisted into a small 4WD without dismantling, making the user experience even more enjoyable.
We also now have an integrated second battery storage option that even helps counter balance the chair.
All the improvements are win-win and have culminated in our new Mk II version.
How much does the new powerchair cost?
It will be three to four percent more expensive than the GTE Mk I, however, we have also tried to help our dealers and improve the margins for them as well. We know they face the same pressures as we do.
About 45 percent of our sales come from customers fundraising and we help provide people with valuable information to help them raise funds and point them in the direction of charities and organisations.
When will the Mk II be available in the market?
The launch is imminent. We have been doing some testing behind the scenes and have a few being used by customers who have been feeding back some fantastic responses, so we will be ready to fully launch the product very soon.
What does the future hold for the company?
Our turnover grew 19 percent last year and 24 percent the year before that, so we are aiming to reach at least 19 percent again this year. I think what is left for us is to increase our production to meet the demand and really to increase our dealers – especially in the UK.
Dealers traditionally didn’t make as much profit on our chairs as they did on imported chairs, so we are trying to put this right. We also have some great dealers who share our vision and see great success selling our chairs.
Our main goal, however, is the USA. We have two patents granted for the USA, which is very different to simply having them applied for; it took us 11 years to get them granted. Now we have those, we are planning to see activity grow over there and it would be great to see a trade deal between the UK and USA that made it easy to export our mobility products across the pond.
There is still a lot of red tape but it would be great to find a good partner over there and eventually do a show like Medtrade.
Ultimately, the sky is limit. We have had success in Europe and frequently customers fly in from as far away as Argentina to pick their chair up, so we know we have something special.
I’m convinced that in time, the front wheel drive, Monocoque template pioneered by Trekinetic will be looked back upon as a trendsetter. It might take a few years longer but it’ll be on the menu of what most customers want.
Just ask any Trekinetic owner.
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