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Wheelchairs Profiteering, Part II: The Wheelchair as a Widget – Erik Kondo

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

Hospital style wheelchairs in a row for sale.
Retail wheelchairs available for sale In Pakistan for $43.

Let’s imagine that we own an industrial manufacturing company in China or some other industrialized country. We have excess manufacturing capacity at our plant, so we have decided to start fabricating and selling wheelchairs. Our goal is to make money by selling as many wheelchairs as we can. We name our wheelchair – the Widget. Here is how we do it.

We will need our customer pool to be as large as possible. That means we must make Widget “fit” as many body types as possible. Big or small, tall or short, old or young, feeble or strong, we need to create a seat that is tolerated by many sizes of people. In order to keep our production costs down, we want to make only one style of seat. Fortunately, this problem has been solved for us. Public transportation, sports stadiums, and event folding chairs are all examples of universal-fit seats. They are relatively wide, with a horizontal seat pan, and a high backrest that reclines slightly. Now we have our seat design for Widget.

In order to save on fabrication costs, we put the axle for the rear wheels into the existing vertical frame section that also supports the seat back. This position also has the added benefit of providing the Widget with rearward (excessive) stability. This rear fixed axle position is a double win for us (and our competitors). We use inexpensive bicycle hubs, spokes, and rims for the wheels. But instead of having to deal with a finicky inner tube and tire, we make a tire out of solid rubber. A solid rubber tire is cheaper for us to make and install. It will not pop or deflate during storage and shipping. It requires us to do no maintenance. Rather than use a bicycle style axle, we just use a threaded bolt and nut to secure the wheel to the frame.

Since some of our customers will want to transport the Widget in the trunk of a car, we design it to fold. Folding has the added benefit of greatly reducing our transportation/shipping costs. We can cram a lot more folding wheelchairs into a shipping container than ones with rigid frames.

In order to enable the Widget to be used to transport people over a variety of terrain, we put large caster wheels in the front. For stability against forward tipping, we mount the two casters under the front the plane of the seat. We use two removable foot/leg support pieces due to the Widget’s folding feature. To keep the occupant’s feet from interfering with the swivel of the caster wheel, we angle the two foot/leg supports forward so their feet are suspended in the air in front of the caster wheel (like a footstool). We make the length of the foot/leg support adjustable to accommodate different size leg lengths (universal-fit!).

For manufacturing ease, the foot/leg supports are mounted to each side of the Widget’s frame which causes the occupant’s legs to be separated (sometimes their knees will awkwardly rotate inward). While this leg and foot position is undesired by many wheelchair users because it (1) lowers the user's overall stability and propulsion capacity and (2) reduces the Widget’s turning maneuverability and access to tight spaces, (3) feels and looks awkward, (4) places more weight on the front casters, requiring them to be even larger in diameter), it accommodates people with leg/foot casts and/or loss of leg flexibility. Thus, increasing the size of our customer pool (universal-fit!) which is a primary goal. Yes, the foot/leg supports will tend to break off due to their structurally weak design, but so do our competitors. Therefore, we don't need to worry about this issue.

We make a dual purpose sideguard and armrest as high as possible to keep the occupant contained in the Widget’s seat and to discourage them from grabbing the drive wheels, thereby interfering with the attendant’s propulsion. We add push handles to the top of the backrest supports for the comfort of the attendant. Finally, we place parking brakes conveniently in front of the rear wheels for ease of access. While this brake position interferes with the occupant’s ability to generate power and self-propel on inclines and rough terrain, due to the risk of jamming their thumb into the brake when propelling, it allows us to use simple and cheap wheel locks which means cost savings for us.

Since our final design is the result of our priority of keeping out manufacturing costs down, we can sell this entire wheelchair in large quantities for as little as $25-$35 and still make a profit. Yes. A wheelchair that is the primary source of mobility for millions of people around the world, can be produced for the cost two movie tickets and some popcorn. It is amazing what can be done when your primary goal is to manufacture something as inexpensively as possible.

Due to our low manufacturing price, we are able to sell the Widget to price conscious wholesalers who resell to price conscious distributors who resell to price conscious consumers. Our Widgets will flood the developing world, where poor people with no other choice will buy them. They will also be sold to retail consumers in the United States who will buy sight unseen online, attracted by the Widget’s low price.

Fortunately, the media, even in wealthy countries, has established Widget like wheelchairs to be the default wheelchair style. They are seen in marketing campaigns, advertisements, the internet, movies and on TV. Therefore, despite its numerous performance flaws and shortcomings, the Widget will be an accepted wheelchair around the world. Afterall, nobody tests a wheelchair for its performance characteristics. In fact, for the general public, the concept of wheelchair performance testing and comparison doesn’t even exist.

Everyone who wants to spend as little as possible on a wheelchair will buy our Widget. Typically, the buyers will not be the users, even the retail consumers. They are likely to be family members who will want (or have no choice, but) to buy the cheapest possible wheelchair for their dependent. It will be pure economics that will drive the buyers (except the actual user) to want our wheelchair Widget.

Finally, our Widget will definitely fall apart after a few years of use, ensuring a constant supply of repeat customers.

A junk pile of wheelchairs.

1 Comment

Yvonne Jack
Yvonne Jack
Nov 06, 2023

Sad reality

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