Q: What are the biggest challenges for Invacare's design engineers?
A: Looking at the HME (Home Medical Equipment) Division, which is the largest group within Invacare, I can see that our engineers need to address products that range from the relatively unsophisticated all the way up to very advanced technologies in respiratory and rehabilitation where we must keep pace with developments in motors, gearboxes, microprocessors, control systems, and communications devices. One of the biggest challenges is simply keeping up with the different product groups and changing conditions in the marketplace. For example, we are shifting some design and manufacturing of commodity items to lower-cost areas such as China. At the same time, we are focusing our design efforts in North America on developing what we describe as compelling or disruptive technologies. These are products with new features that are very compelling to customers—or incorporate technologies that take the industry in a whole different direction.
Q: Is there an underlying goal that motivates your engineers?
A: The tagline of our company is, "Yes, you can," meaning that we are trying to design products that will enable people to be as independent as possible. Whether it's a respiratory product or a wheelchair, the goal is to help patients regain a level of independence that they have lost as a result of an illness or disability.
Q: Would you describe some of the major advances in power wheelchairs?
A: We are constantly looking at kinematics, linkages, articulating frames, and other mechanisms to improve propulsion. Being able to move a chair with the least amount of effort is crucial to a lot of patients. The TDX5™, which is the gold standard in the industry, incorporates many innovations that I would classify in that "compelling category" I mentioned earlier. It includes a geometry in which the drive wheels are mounted in the center of the base, providing the smallest possible turning radius. A TrueTrack feature provides positional feedback from motors, which insures accurate balancing of the motors and allows the chair to stay on course, regardless of the terrain. Another patent-pending technology, SureStep, incorporates a linkage mechanism that harnesses the torque of a motor so that, when you come up against an obstacle, the front casters actually lift off the ground. as a result, you have a wheelchair that can negotiate a 3-inch vertical step with ease. In addition, there's Stability Lock, which keeps the chair from rocking or tipping when it stops. Finally, on the electronics side, the TDX5 demonstrates our leadership in microprocessors and brushless commutation. For the user, that translates into easier programming and sophisticated driver controls.
Q: How about innovations in your respiratory line?
A: We have a new product called the HomeFill™ II, which is a great example of a disruptive technology that is changing an industry. It's a high-pressure compressor that takes oxygen from an oxygen concentrator and stores it in a little bottle that weighs just 3.6 lbs. This allows patients to generate their own ambulatory oxygen at home. They no longer have to worry about running out of cylinders, which are typically delivered by a dealer.
Q: How much interaction do your engineers have with users of your products?
A: We emphasize that our engineers need to spend time in the field, getting input from the many categories of people who make up our customer base. This includes insurance companies, Medicare or Medicaid representatives, our dealer network, therapists, patients, and caregivers. The idea is to develop products that answer customer wants as quickly as possible. An example of a product we developed by observing customer needs is the Court-Slide Glide™, which consists of a plastic housing that fits onto walker legs and holds a tennis ball. It's a simple design, but it was a hit at the 2004 Medtrade show. Most people can't tell you what a product needs to be unless you get out there, observe, and ask questions.
Neal Curran has been with Invacare, (
http://rbi.ims.ca/4404-531), since 1983. He has served in numerous engineering positions, most recently as vice president of Rehabilitation Products. Curran, who holds several patents and awards for his work, received his BME degree from Cleveland State University.