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Inventor helps MERU teach babies to drive

01 October 2007

Design software plays a key role in development of an innovative powered wheelchair for disabled infants

Young children aged between one and five are constantly on the move. They are always crawling, toddling, running, falling and learning about the world through this mobility. Imagine, therefore, what it is like for children of this age with disabilities. Too young for conventionally powered wheelchairs, they run the risk of missing out on key stages of development, unable to explore, play and communicate through independent movement.

Over the years, the therapeutic community has become increasingly aware of this problem, especially as successive studies continue to underline the critical nature of mobility at such an early age. Thankfully, it is just the kind of challenge relished by the team at the Medical Engineering Resource Unit (MERU). The unit, a charitable organisation based in Surrey, designs and manufactures a wide range of custom-made medical products for children and young people when no commercially-made product is suitable.

Consequently, after five years of research, MERU has created the Bugzi wheelchair, an indoor electric device which has been carefully designed to enable young children to drive themselves. Autodesk Inventor was an important tool in this development.

The design recently won the British Healthcare Trades Association (BHTA) Independent Living Design Award. But, more importantly, Bugzi is giving these very young children with disabilities the chance to manoeuvre themselves expertly and engage in everyday activities. Over 50 children have already benefited and there are currently 16 Bugzis out in the field.

Design engineer Peter Swann has been with MERU for around six years and had worked with the team previously as a student. They had one copy of Inventor when he joined, but until then the software had hardly been used.

He sensed a wasted opportunity: “I’d been working in an office using AutoCAD but was determined to take advantage of Inventor and set about teaching myself. In the end, I found it very straightforward and within a matter of weeks I was up and running,” he says.

Working with Autodesk reseller CADline and taking advantage of Autodesk’s educational licence programme, the team now has ten seats to enable all MERU engineers to use the software. “Being able to take advantage of educational licences has made the software readily available to our extended team,” says Mr Swann. Inventor really came into its own during the Bugzi development.

“The body shell of the chair is all complex shapes with compound surfaces. We stretched the software to the limits of the design, creating fillets and playing around with different shapes, but of course, Inventor’s parametric model enabled us to do this. We were able to assemble and visualise designs on screen and easily modify them to create components in assemblies that match and connect to others - all contributing to our ability to see and experience the design before we created a physical product.

“I find it extraordinary that more manufacturers aren’t using model-based design; it’s simple to use and you build the product just as if you are making it. On some projects, we can go straight from the screen into production without making a prototype as any clashes can be detected on screen,” says Mr Swann.

Now Bugzi is in production, the vacuum-formed body shells are made directly from the CAD model. “We send our supplier the Inventor model and they make the mouldings directly from this – there’s been no need for me even to visit them as it has all been so seamless,” he concludes.

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