Wheelchair design @ PROJIMO

Position: Intern from Delft University of Technology


PROJIMO is a community based rehabilitation project run by and for disabled people, located in the rural region of Sinaloa, Mexico. I was asked to help improve the wheelchair workshop, in particular the quality and efficiency of wheelchair design and production.


Some of the disabled residents of the PROJIMO-community have been trained to custom-make and fit artificial limbs, orthopedic braces and wheelchairs for the local amputees and orthopedically handicapped individuals. My work was commissioned by David Werner*, facilitator of PROJIMO and PIAXTLA. These projects made the remote mountain village of Ajoya an example for many grassroots initiatives around the world. 

"With the help of Maurits Zijp, a student of industrial design from the Netherlands, the Ajoya team has been increasing the efficiency of their wheelchair design and construction." (Newsletter from the Sierra Madre)

Learning and analysis
The first period I just cooperated in the making of the wheelchairs. This way I could analyse their processes, while learning/improving my practical skills. Like how to shape and weld steel tubes together into frames. At the same time I had to learn Spanish (I didn't speak more than a few words upon arrival), a somehow important asset to make myself of any use at all.


The workshop was passionately led by Gabriel Zepeda, a dedicated and skilled craftsman himself, but the work was done in a quite disorganised way. The continuity was much depending on the (random) availability of materials; little was done on stock control. Another issue that could use improvement was the design input. In fact, the workers had a very practical approach to the whole design idea: start welding, check result; if not good, then cut and weld again.


'Standard' and 'special' design
The assignments were basically divided into 'standard' wheelchairs, that just needed adjustment to the size of the child, and special wheelchairs, for children with particular impairments , body shapes or conditions, etc. The standard ones were effectively produced according to a low cost design, the 'Whirlwind' by Ralf Hotckiss, who had earlier contributed to the project.


In the 'special' category we built for example a tricycle with a chain drive, a cart for a mother to push her four children (all suffering from muscular dystrophy!) and a wheelchair for a boy who had to lie down most of the time and who's knees were positioned the other way around. Again, it was remarkable that our solutions had to be based on some quick notes and a hasty sketch made during the consultation of the particular child. 


Indeed, when we delivered the wheelchairs in the cities of Mazatlán and Culiacán, it was clear that in the process from the consultation to the final product improvements could be made: a design method was needed.


Design manual and measuring chair
I started to write a design manual, explaining basic design methodology, some straightforward theory of materials and structures, information about common physical impairments, etc. I also designed a measuring chair to use at the consultation of the children, and built a first prototype. As all parts of this chair were adjustable in size and angle, the most important design parameters could instantly be registered.


When my time in Ajoya came to an end, I asked my faculty for students to follow up. Two interns continued the project and finished both the design manual and the measuring chair.

Workshop and living @ PROJIMO

Wheelchairs delivery in Culiacán

Measuring chair

* David Werner

Healthworker and (co)author of the renowned healthcare handbook Where There is No Doctor and several more books, including Helping Health Workers Learn, Disabled Village Children and Questioning the Solution: The Politics of Primary Health Care and Child Survival. Overview >