Research and development is at the very heart of the mobility industry. Equipment suppliers committed to innovation are pouring significant resources into R&D to ensure the next generation of equipment is even better and more advanced than the last. In this special report, AMP speaks to suppliers spearheading the major developments taking the market by storm.
Some members of the mobility industry would say that in comparison to technologies like computers and mobile phones, products in the sector have been slow to advance. But you only need to look at the vast amount of time and resources mobility firms are pouring into their research and development (R&D) operations to be reassured that the industry is blooming and pushing the boundaries of technology and capability.
The very nature of the mobility industry demands that innovation and new ideas are constantly churned out so companies meet the complex requirements of individuals and improve quality of life for end-users.
Any designer, manufacturer or supplier of mobility equipment would argue that they do their utmost to invest time and money into developing and improving products to ensure retailers are armed with the latest offerings. In the same way that dealers can’t stand still when it comes to business, equipment suppliers have to keep moving to ensure they are always bringing new products to their retail network. As such, most suppliers recognise that R&D is absolutely paramount.
One of these companies is Sheffield-based bathroom specialist Kingkraft. “Research and development is critical to Kingkraft and design lies at the heart of what we do,” explains managing director Thomas Harrison. “We have a huge amount of experience in developing disability products and we can react quickly to what customers are asking for. The team at Kingkraft comprises of product designers, engineers and occupational therapists who can all draw on their individual skills to develop stylish, functional and cutting edge products.”
The need to react to customer demand rings true with mobility suppliers across the board. And like Kingkraft, specialist wheelchair designer, Trekinetic, has to constantly react. These days, most of its R&D manifests from customer requests for something the product does not do yet — meaning the boundaries are always being stretched. Luckily for the Hemel Hempstead firm it has the luxury of an in-house state-of-the-art CNC (machining) facility with full 3D modelling software as well as 2D design, according to Mike Spindle, managing director.
Meanwhile, stairlift giant Stannah has a clear strategy when it comes to R&D. “It’s through R&D we discover the little gems that can make what we do better. Our approach is simple in that we have a product roadmap showing where we want to be and a technology roadmap showing the R&D we need to do,” explains Ross Pascoe, product development director. He adds: “It’s easy to think that R&D is all about the next new product, which is true some of the time but it’s equally — if not more important — to continue to challenge what you currently do and listen to the people living it as usually this is where the best insights come from.”
While Stannah and Trekinetic are able to manage R&D processes in-house, some firms venture further afield where better facilities are available. Topro, which supplies a range of rollators to UK dealers, including the new Odysse and Neuro models, outsources its R&D to Norway and Germany. Not before, however, feedback is given to the European teams by the UK regarding industry requirements and trends. As well as developing new models like the Odysse rollator, Topro also strives to improve its existing products and recently managed to modify and reduce the weight of its Classic to under 7kg after listening to feedback from its retail partners.
For some, R&D is partly what defines a mobility firm. Helene Svahn, VP research and innovation at Permobil, states that a manufacturer who does not focus on R&D is not a relevant supplier. “Since the current healthcare system is not sustainable we will see a lot of change in the near future and as a supplier you need to be prepared for that,” she outlines.
Hurdles to product development
The whole process of researching the market and competitors and then designing, manufacturing and perfecting a complex product is far from a smooth procedure. The very nature of R&D means that firms have to constantly reassess and design their equipment to meet their briefs. Manufacturers each experience their own hurdles when it comes to R&D and this can translate into delays and problems for retailers too. And unsurprisingly, at the top of the directory of difficulties is money.
Harrison notes that a primary challenge has always been and remains the financial resource to cover speculative development. He knows that R&D is a hugely expensive process which can often take years and years to pay off.
“The grant application process in the UK is very long-winded and paperwork intensive, so for a SME business it is hard to dedicate resources to write and administer grant applications. There are some good bid writers out there who you can outsource it to, but again it is another cost to consider when developing a product. That said, UK government support in the medical sector, and specifically in the Sheffield City Region, is very good,” Harrison says.
Similarly, Topro feels the strain of having to foot a bill for keeping its products up to date and introducing new ones. Sales manager, Paul Briggs, notes that cost can be tricky while trying to balance quality at the same time as producing products at a price that is attractive to the market.
Aside from money, processes, especially in large companies, can be delayed because of expansive management teams and a hierarchical structure. Spindle feels that in the wider equipment industry, a lack of vision and an obsession with margins among global giants is one of the major obstacles to R&D in the sector. He explains: “Many companies can only make decisions, via boards, from finite facts and figures. But when breaking new ground there are no boundaries and only problems with no available solution. The only time you can predict the completion date is at the end. The world is changed by a person with an idea — they’re the primary.”
One giant company which is able to invest significantly in R&D is Electric Mobility. But it is not immune to challenges in this field. Technical director, Richard Rudd, explains one hurdle is what he sees as turnkey development: “There’s too much ‘me too’ business being conducted where companies are forced to become box shifters, not market leaders,” he says.
“Another problem is non-compliant products being offered at cut prices — companies buying and distributing sub-standard or illegal product ultimately depress quality levels and in some cases endanger users. There is a lack of enforcement against companies selling unsafe or non-compliant product — the Argos and Harvey’s saga comes to mind.”
The evolution of R&D
Whatever the hurdles may be, progression marches on and suppliers recognise the rewards to be had from overcoming R&D challenges. Looking ahead to the future, companies will continue to develop their R&D strategies. For Topro, this will mean using its international facilities to design products that fit with consumer trends. Briggs reveals: “We are working on many exciting projects at present both in Norway and other parts of Europe. We are working in conjunction with a number of organisations across Europe looking to push the boundaries further and to keep at the forefront of the industry.”
“There’s too much ‘me too’ business being conducted where companies are forced to become box shifters, not market leaders. There is a lack of enforcement against companies selling unsafe or non compliant product — the Argos and Harvey’s saga comes to mind”
Meanwhile, Kingkraft is busy working on a new product it hopes to launch to the market by early next year. More generally, though, it senses it will move along a particular path as it develops its strategy. “We are investing heavily in more hi-tech equipment in the digital health fields which will provide solutions for occupational therapists and physiotherapists who are working in rehabilitation. We can draw on our expertise in knowing what end-users and therapists want and combine it with cutting-edge technology,” says Harrison.
While suppliers will strive to develop their products and bring new and exciting models to market, many feel this can be best achieved by maintaining a stable overall R&D strategy — one that is not constantly changing like their products. This is generally true for TGA Mobility which says it will continue along similar lines. However, managing director, Daniel Stone, points out that it will invest more time and resources with its manufacturers.
“We believe there needs to be an increased level of feedback throughout the supply chain right from end-user to OEM. We will continue to introduce new and more detailed reporting processes that highlight potential manufacturing issues so solutions can be implemented at source,” Stone says.
As the UK supplier of the pioneering high-performance WHILL powerchair, TGA knows that retailers will often look for deals with the firms who are the most committed to R&D. In fact, Stone believes that choosing suppliers who invest in R&D is critical for customer satisfaction. He comments: “Product reliability, durability and safety tend to be higher from companies who have a progressive attitude to innovation. By selecting products that have been diligently designed and rigorously tested, dealers are able to strengthen their reputation and generate healthy business growth in a sustainable manner.”
Likewise, Mountain Trike, which is at the cutting-edge of off-road wheelchairs, understands that retailers can benefit from working alongside suppliers who are committed to R&D. Director, Tim Morgan, outlines: “Feedback from sales teams is highly important as their experience from daily interactions with end-customers is vital to any design engineer.”
Those in the mobility trade will know that R&D is a two-way street for both suppliers and dealers. While costly for the supplier, both parties benefit in the long term. With the market’s appetite for new and innovative products forever growing, dealers can expect to see new products trickling in all the time. Once in every while, the industry will see a giant leap in product advancement and it is at times like this when both retailers and their suppliers realise the true benefits of R&D. This is assuming dealers are tuned into the market and ready to seize chances.
But firms also realise that by its very nature, R&D is a slow and considered process that can’t be rushed. While waiting for upgrades on existing products as well as ground-breaking new ones, all retailers can do is keep in close contact with their existing suppliers so they are updated regularly. In addition to this, sourcing suppliers who are serious about their R&D strategy seems to be a sure-fire way of achieving success across all sectors of the mobility industry.