If, like the top mobility dealers in the market, you keep a sharp eye on the latest developments in equipment, you will know that certain areas of the sector are advancing at a quick pace.
Take scooters, for example, in the last few months a raft of new folding and class three designs have disproved the notion that manufacturers in this field are standing still.
As you read this, research and development (R&D) teams both home and abroad are working hard to design, build, test and evaluate advanced pieces of equipment. And speaking to some of the top manufacturers, it becomes apparent that the steady march of evolution shows no sign of slowing.
For some suppliers, like Drive DeVilbiss Healthcare, which has one of the broadest product portfolios in the industry, a holistic approach to R&D produces the best fruit. Its strategy, says senior product manager David Markham, offers an ability to differentiate and add value when designing equipment.
Discussing the company’s approach to product development, Markham says that the firm considers the benefits that can be achieved from utilising new technologies like 3D scanning, pressure mapping and finite element analysis within CAD.
“Dealers will only remain committed to manufacturers who drive innovation and develop products customers will relate to”
He notes: “Investing heavily in R&D allows us to control the design and quality of our products. And with an approach that pushes design boundaries and innovation we support the [equipment] industry by driving it forward.”
Gino Farruggio, trade sales director at homelifts supplier Stiltz, also subscribes to the notion that manufacturers have a responsibility to push the industry into the future.
In fact, he believes that companies like Stiltz owe it to their dealers and end-users to be at the cutting edge of equipment developments. He says the firm invests heavily in producing new and upgrading current products and regards R&D as fundamental to the business’s long-term success.
“We are determined to remain at the forefront of innovation in the industry and always focus on staying ahead of the curve. After all, dealers will only remain committed to manufacturers who drive innovation and develop products customers will relate to. Technology continues to evolve at a rapid rate and to maintain the strong partnerships we have developed with the trade, Stiltz needs make sure their developments match or exceed this rate.”
It seems to be a trend among manufacturers to make R&D a part of their dealer strategy. Electric Mobility’s managing director, Johnathan Hearth, believes that by investing in unique products and innovations to solve end-user problems, the firm is building its partners’ businesses as well as its own.
He refers to Electric Mobility’s new run flat tyres introduced last year, the new Vista mid-sized scooter and the folding Smilie scooters launched in 2019 as examples of the manufacturer’s latest work.
But Hearth adds: “The most exciting advances from Electric Mobility’s R&D program are obviously the ones we are currently working on for launch in 2020 and 2021, but we can’t talk about those yet.”
Such is Karma Mobility’s focus on product development that it recently brought on a new chief of innovations to lead on future designs. The company sees R&D as a key way of differentiating itself from competition in such a packed market.
Newly-recruited Eric van Olst has over 30 years’ experience in the wheelchair market and hopes to benefit retailers. Since joining the company earlier this year, he has already been involved in the design of the Versus seating frame, the Leon Kameleon paediatric powerchair and the EvO range.
R&D: Art or Science?
While most manufacturers claim to place R&D at the core of their businesses, all will admit that keeping up with new trends and customer demands is very difficult.
Often, small changes to a single product will cost a manufacturer tens of thousands of pounds and developing an entirely new one is even more expensive – even when produced in the Far East. Processes and systems dictate that companies have to follow certain procedures, which can blunt the pace of change.
As Hearth notes, keeping up with trends is one thing, trying to stay ahead of them is altogether more challenging. He says his company spends a great deal of time talking to both end-users and dealers to try and understand the limitations of current designs in meeting users’ needs.
“It is only by understanding users and how they want to, and more importantly, need to use their products that we can come up with the next innovations,” he says.
On the other hand, Colin Scarsi, founder of wheelchair manufacturer Greencare, whose equipment is distributed by James Bridge’s firm Flexel Mobility, says processes are beginning to change how R&D is approached. Scarsi explains that modern manufacturing techniques combined with rapid prototyping have begun to shorten lead times between design and production.
“Sophisticated software like what we have at Greencare can even strength test components. Our 3D printer works around the clock converting ideas and designs into components. Greencare is building new products and accessories upon firm foundations laid down with the early design of the DB1 wheelchair. With such a good pedigree of performance and reliability, benchmarks against which to measure new designs are easily established.”
Mark Duffield, general manager of Karma, makes an interesting point about the challenges associated with R&D. Rather than the cost and complications of creating new equipment, he notes that just choosing which projects to pursue can be a headache. He says there are always more suggestions than companies have the capacity to action and that choosing the wrong project to invest in can be an expensive mistake. The ability to choose right, Duffield says, “is more of an art than a science”.
“With so much talent around lots of companies are developing great wheelchair elements that are soon copied by other companies, levelling out advancement across the whole sector”
For Farruggio, keeping up with trends is all about careful planning. The company’s approach is to set trends and be proactive rather than reactive. He says Stiltz has a roadmap in place incorporating feedback from trade partners and end-users.
While introducing completely new products can take time, improvements and updates can be introduced more easily, says Farruggio. For instance, Stiltz recently extended the travel distance of its homelift by half a metre to a maximum of 4.5 metres.
This product update was introduced in response to feedback from distributors in France and Germany where properties tend to have higher ceilings than in the UK.
Pride in Products
New product launches have obvious impacts on the suppliers making them. Manufacturers expect to see increased sales and new distribution partners when they bring a new item to the market. But how do manufacturers view the impact their R&D strategies have on the wider mobility industry?
Hearth believes that to claim Electric Mobility’s R&D is having a major impact on the industry would be “somewhat arrogant”. However, he notes the company’s main measure of achievement is to solve customers’ needs in an ever-better way.
Hearth comments: “Our customers all have very specific needs from the products they purchase and use, only some of those needs are fully met by current technology.
“Our goal has to be to understand the real needs of customers, both those that are only partially or fully unmet and to solve those in a better way than our competitors. If we do that both our business and our dealers’ businesses will continue to thrive.”
Similarly, Drive’s strategy is built on aiding clinical practice and supporting cost management. Markham says that driving good R&D is “essential” to helping the medical industry meet changing demands and higher volume of patients. He regards enhancing the life of patients as a sound measure of success.
Duffield’s view is that by impacting on dealer partners with its R&D, Karma is playing its part in pushing and pulling certain areas of the industry forward.
He hopes the company’s product initiatives make people notice Karma for having different equipment unavailable elsewhere on the market. Duffield also hopes Karma’s strategy will impact heavily on retailers by allowing them to offer more choice when dealing with end-users.
Some firms are duly proud of individual R&D achievements and believe they have created ripples in certain sectors. Greencare was born from the Greentyre company, which supplied puncture-proof tyres to the NHS more than 25-years ago. Scarsi believes inventive talent at the firm has impacted heavily on the NHS and how it buys its wheelchairs.
He says: “It is unlikely that any one company will have such a global effect on the industry ever again. With so much talent around lots of companies are developing great wheelchair elements that are soon copied by other companies, levelling out advancement across the whole sector.”
Likewise, Farruggio feels that Stiltz’ homelift is one product which has shifted the access sector. The homelift is a relatively recent member of the equipment market and has quickly become the accepted name for any device that travels through the floor. Farruggio explains that Stiltz has set out to change how mobility products are seen.
“Our philosophy continues to be that lack of mobility should not mean you have to settle for a less attractive-looking product, such as a stairlift for example. The homecare industry has been very static for a number of years with products all looking very similar and very clinical. Stiltz is designing products which look attractive in the home and are easy to install,” Farruggio says.
It is clear that manufacturers in all equipment sectors continue to invest heavily in their R&D processes. They rightly see development as an essential part of their business which not only helps to attract new trade partners but also ensures they keep their current dealers. This trend is certainly encouraging for the industry’s middle-men. But these days, dealers have more of a role to play in innovation than previously.
While it may seem that R&D processes are generally driven from the top-down with manufacturers dictating how products evolve, it is important for retailers to remember the collective power they have. Dealers are increasingly playing a part in driving R&D, with their valued feedback being taken on by the most progressive manufacturers.
Crucially, distributors also act as a messenger between end-user and supplier. We might conclude therefore, that although manufacturers are the drivers of innovation, dealers have the leverage to push for the products and changes they really want.
It is up to suppliers whether they listen, but more often than not, the top firms will know that dealers are generally the best placed professionals when it comes to knowing which equipment will sink and which will swim.