Research and Development Overview

Whirlwind’s work falls into three broad categories: user-originated design, wheelchair production and provision, and assistive technology research.  Click the orange links below to learn more about each topic from articles on our blog.

User-Orginated Design

Wheelchair riders know best what they need in a wheelchair to be able to carry out their activities of daily living.  Rider-originated design is a defining principle at Whirlwind that keeps the rider’s environmental and use requirements at the front of our minds.  Since 1979, Whirlwind’s founder, Ralf Hotchkiss, himself a paraplegic, has traveled all over the world in chairs he has built himself to learn from other wheelchair rider/builders in small shops what features are necessary in a good wheelchair that will be used in the rough conditions that are prevalent throughout the developing world.   Durability and repairability mean the chair will last a long time, lowering the overall cost of the chair over its lifetime.  The RoughRider’s much greater stability makes it the chair of choice for safety and freedom, as well as for use in rough environments.  Wheelchair riders as much as anyone else deserve to have a product that is visually appealing, so aesthetic concerns are close behind function in our approach to design.  Designs that really work where people actually live give riders freedom to go where they need to go.  Recent innovations in Whirlwind’s wheelchairs include upgrades in the support for posture, increased durability, and increased size range.

Production and Provision

Economic development goes hand in hand with wheelchair provision.  Rather than centralizing manufacture, Whirlwind keeps costs low and spreads out the economic development opportunity that comes from wheelchair production.  Small shops building models customized for locally available materials were Whirlwind’s focus before the effects of globalization made this unfeasible.  Today Whirlwind has a regional manufacturing network which keeps shipping costs and our carbon footprint comparatively small.  Riders do not enjoy the benefits of a thoughtful design if strict quality control is not monitored in our manufacturing processes.  Consequently, Whirlwind is an industry leader in quality control.  Wheelchair production using Whirlwind technology has been set up in 53 shops in 35 countries.  In the course of our projects, we keep our minds open to learning from our local partners and relaying the lessons learned to our other partners in the network.  Recent innovations in local shops' business models shift the focus from full-manufacture to assembly shops which emphasize wheelchair provision, repair, and fitting services and are better positioned for long term sustainability.

Assisitive Technology Research and Whirlwind's University Headquarters

Wheelchairs and other mobility aids are part of a broader category of Assistive Technology including other devices like hearing aids and eye glasses.  Whirlwind is interested in how proven existing technologies which are readily available in the global North can be equally available in the developing world.  Our curiosity fits in well with our scholarly environment at San Francisco State University.  Students and professors from various areas of study such as business, product design, international relations, and disability studies contribute to Whirlwind’s pursuit of knowledge so that we can be more effective in our work.

Practically speaking, the University Corporation SF State, a 501(C)(3) non-profit auxiliary to SFSU, provides Whirlwind with shop and office space and support services such as accounting, public relations staff and fund development assistance.  

Each semester we offer a Wheelchair Design and Construction course in the classroom and shop adjacent to our office.  Students can also volunteer in a variety of capacities for Whirlwind and apply for internships.  Once every other month students can participate with Whirlwind in San Francisco’s Project Homeless Connect repairing wheelchairs of homeless San Franciscans.  Whirlwind is a program of SFSU's Institute for Civic and Community Engagement (ICCE).