Project Wallk at Big Bang Fair

Imagine a show bursting with clever inventions, hands-on workshops and innovative ideas to give thousands of young people a glimpse of the exciting and rewarding opportunities to be found in the world of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Well, that’s precisely what you’ll find at The Big Bang Science & Engineering Fair – one of the largest events to celebrate STEM for young people. Exhibitors at the fair include some of the UK’s most influential design and engineering companies such as Rolls Royce, Airbus Group, and Atkins, as well as hands-on workshops by Space agencies and the NHS.

NHS workshop at Big Bang Fair

Amongst exhibitors at the Big Bang Fair 2016 was the comparatively low-tech ‘Project Wallk’ workshop. Project Wallk is a social venture fuelled by the seemingly humble vision that “The chance to walk should be offered to all.” But for many children with walking impairments who live in developing regions of the world there is often no access to healthcare and as a result getting hold of a much needed walking aid is not easy.  A walking aid can enable a child to attend school, integrate in the community and escape the disability-poverty cycle, so the mission of Project Wallk is to offer a long-term and affordable solution for mobility rehabilitation across developing regions of the world.

The majority of designers and engineers in the UK tend to focus on developing products/services for consumers with disposable income (the top 10% of people in the world). Facilitators at the Project Wallk workshop were focused on teaching young visitors about designing appropriately for ‘the other 90%’ (the billions of people who don’t even have their basic food and water, shelter, sanitation, education, and healthcare needs met). The main hands-on activity being run at the workshop was a product assembly challenge, to put together various walking aids from the innovative Evolvable Walking Aid Kit. The kit consists of a set of locally manufacturable parts made from half a wooden pallet and up to 24 cable ties, which can be assembled to form a walking frame, crutches or a walking stick. The whole kit can be locally produced in a sustainable manner using simple hand tools and it will adapt to correctly support a child throughout their mobility rehabilitation process…for just 68 pence!

Assembling Evolvable walking aid kits

Throughout the Big Bang Fair, feedback was collected about the Evolvable Walking Aid Kit’s visual assembly instructions, to ensure it will be as intuitive as possible to assemble. The fair proved to be a great platform for Project Wallk to simultaneously collect design feedback and share their passion with such a large young audience, whilst inspiring the next generation of innovators to focus on solving humanity’s biggest design challenges.

You can follow the progress of Project Wallk at www.facebook.com/Meru.llama

Breaking the mould

Back in October we headed over to Germany to explore what felt like the largest trade fair for walking aids in the universe; for us it was market research paradise. There were some funky colours and patterns on show but in general the walking aid market was begging for some deeper innovation. On return from this trip we filled our workshop with every imaginable type of walking aid and then disassembled and dissected all of their components to gain a good understanding of the various manufacturing processes involved.  That same workshop was then filled with engineers and design thinkers along with records of feedback from our walking aid users, which enabled us to reduce the number of parts in the final design and lower the manufacturing costs.

We’ve been determined to give this range of walking aids a unique character and remove the stigma associated with existing grey disability products, and I’m pleased to say that with a little visual guidance from designers at MAP and Sugru we have done just that. Several useful and innovative features have been designed into the range and we are ready to get making version 3 of the test model to collect more feedback from physiotherapists. Our final design is in the process of being structurally analysed by a fantastic engineer from Major Engineering and we will be ready to make the final pre-prototype in a few weeks time. Getting to this stage of the project has been a massive learning curve and we’ve overcome countless obstacles and challenges along the way. In the next few weeks we will be stocking up on components and materials in preparation for reaching the next big milestone.

Project Foundations

One month into the project and we’re well under way with the walking aid kit design now. The project aims to offer long term walking aid users with the ideal type of support throughout changes in their condition by providing a walking aid kit which can be assembled like a LEGO® set to form a walking stick, crutches or a walking frame. By eliminating the need to buy more than one type of walking aid the design aims to reduce costs and improve the mobility rehabilitation experience.

The past month has been focused on putting together the project foundations and refining the design specification. As well as analysing health and safety standards and identifying design constraints, there have been some insightful talks with walking aid users, occupational therapists and physiotherapists about their experiences with various walking aids. I visited a mobility rehabilitation centre with several different types of crutches which meant they needed a huge store room to keep them all in alongside all the sticks, walking frames and all sorts of other equipment! The most progressive activity of the project this month has been meeting with designers and engineers to discuss potential manufacturing methods for the kit. Keeping the manufacturing costs low is integral to the final product so these discussions will have significant influence on the design.

Physio store room

We’re moving in to a brand new makerspace for entrepreneurs!

In September the project will move to the Central Research Laboratory (CRL) which is the UK’s first purpose built facility dedicated to entrepreneurial makers.  As well as providing workshop space and machinery to assist with prototyping and testing the design, the CRL will also provide mentoring for the business side of the project so there will be lots to learn!  A few weeks ago I was invited to talk at an event at The Old Vinyl Factory to introduce the Evolvable Walking Aid Kit to an audience of people who wanted to learn how they could help start-ups to thrive- It was a great evening as well as my first glimpse of the future home to the CRL!

Talking at the Old Vinyl Factory, Hayes

Our design journey is being supported by the Inclusive Technology Prize, you can check out the other finalist’s posts by following this link.

New Chartersip for Product Design

The Institute of Engineering Designers recently celebrated its 70th anniversary at St James’ Palace. To mark the occasion a chartership for Product Design was introduced to recognise the achievements of those working in the sector. I was lucky enough to be invited along to represent the young members of the institute, and even more lucky to get to talk with Prince Philip about my work. Design history was made that evening as the first five charterships in product design ever to be awarded were presented during a speech by Prince Philip himself; I really hope my sense of humour is as sharp as his when I’m that age!
Images: Prince Philip and Cara O’Sullivan at St Jame’s Palace, London

Prince Philip giving a speech at the IED 70th anniversary chartership for product design

Should you Aspire to Inspire?

Humans have a natural curiosity for how things work. It’s what leads many of us into the design and engineering field. As design becomes increasingly dependent on ‘invisible’ technology, inquisitive children are struggling to answer their curiosities by simply dismantling things with a humble screwdriver like we used to be able to. The mission to make life simpler is adding complexity to the way products function, and instead of wanting to understand how they work, children are being absorbed by these products as consumers.

As a result of this, there is a huge shortfall of interest from today’s children in the engineering industry and the government has since realised the importance of promoting design and engineering disciplines from an early age. It has become easy to get lost in the floods of figures relating to the political reasons why design and engineering so desperately needs more interest from today’s students. By re-engaging students with design and ‘the way things work’ we will be able to fill the growing skills gap, boost the nation’s economic growth and retain a global technological advantage. Failing to engage more students in design and engineering will go far beyond an increased dependence upon global labour forces. The Duke of Edinburgh (2015) recently inferred that it could hinder endeavours of the human race.

Most discoveries and innovations of the past were made by trying to understand how something works. In order to encourage innovation in the future it is essential that we foster curiosity in today’s children and equip them with the ambition and skills to want to pursue and retain a career in our industry. For the past two years I have been heavily involved in a range of STEM programmes (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) observing and understanding what deters children and students from pursuing STEM subjects and what it takes to re-engage them with the way the world around them works.

At a young age our interests are easily influenced by exposure to the stereotypical views and expectations of our society. Dame Professor Ann Dowling (2015) believes that conforming to cultural norms can make the field of engineering uninviting, particularly for girls, due to outdated stereotypes. In order to combat this we need to nurture interest in design and engineering from a young age with the assistance of role models from the industry, to show that social expectations can be overridden by an ambition to pursue engineering. Until our society is gender neutral and unbiased about engineering roles, we should focus on building young girls’ confidence so that they are equally comfortable in pursuing the subject further without feeling incongruous.

It seems rather obvious that if a student doesn’t know about a career they won’t have the ambition to pursue it, yet Ofsted (2013) states that schools rarely offercomprehensive careers advice. From my experience as a ‘Careers Captain’ at The Big Bang Fair (The UK’s largest STEM event) it seems obvious that the most influential and well-informed careers advice comes from the people who have ‘been there and done it’ and are able to discuss how particular subjects, interests and talents play a part in their job. According to Lei Bao (Head of the Physics Education Research Group) the usual theoretical style of teaching does not suit the learning style of many students which can cause them to lose interest in essential STEM subjects from an early age (Science Friday, 2009). Whilst talking to a secondary school Science club I realised how the enthusiasm and knowledge possessed by people who actually work in the design and engineering industry can have a far greater influence on students than their usual theoretical lessons, and this is often enough to reignite students’ interest in the subjects.

Significant efforts are now being made to engage schools and organisations with design and STEM education, and various events have been established across the UK to show young people (primarily aged 7-19) just how many exciting and rewarding opportunities there are in STEM industries if they pursue the correct subjects. Last month I ran a workshop at a STEM event in London to give teams of students a taste of hands-on programming to navigate a robot around a simple obstacle course. This, and many other activities taking place at the event demonstrated how industry involvement can provide a highly engaging and fun way of learning for both the students and the coordinators.

Whilst interviewing Libby Meyrick, Chief Executive of The Institution of Engineering Designers, she explained to me that “the benefits associated with the involvement of business in STEM activities are numerous. The most immediate is the improved understanding and awareness of what industry does and the role of engineers within industry and therefore society.”

Libby clarified “This improved understanding by students, parents and teachers and their appreciation of the excitement and fulfilment of a career in engineering, via hands-on experiences and/or meeting with genuine engineers and scientists is proven to increase the numbers of young people entering the professions and therefore helps to provide a supply of engineers in the future which can only be a benefit to all businesses.

As well as industry engagement being beneficial for students it is also a cost effective way for organisations to develop their employees’ core competencies such as communication, networking and leadership skills. Many organisations believe that their investment in today’s students will influence the future of their business, and some view their engagement with students as an opportunity to plant career aspirations.

We are all responsible for sharing our knowledge with the next generation in order tohelp them understand and improve the world. There is urgency for students to realise that they are capable of improving everything around us through design and engineering, and it is people who work in the industry who can explain how. If you would like to get involved or find out more, please visithttp://www.stemnet.org.uk/employers/ or get in touch with your local school. The benefits of sharing your knowledge have been underrated for far too long; now is the time to inspire.

Bugzi Wheelchairs for toddlers

Bugzi is a powered indoor wheelchair which offers a unique opportunity for pre-school children with disabilities to experience independent mobility, often for the first time in their lives.

Last week MERU had a visit from the Institution of Engineering and Technology, who wanted to find out more about the award-winning Bugzi.  This short film documents the process from building a Bugzi to assessing a child to use it as part of the Bugzi loan scheme.