Brothers Barry and Jered Dean didn’t set out to start a company. But nothing on the market solved their problem: Keeping Barry’s daughter, Katherine, safe in her power wheelchair.
Users can get hurt if the devices, which weigh hundreds of pounds, tip over or run into objects. That happened to Katherine, who was born with cerebral palsy, when her power wheelchair tipped over, resulting in arm and leg injuries.
After some debate, Barry, a Grammy-nominated Nashville songwriter, and Jered, a Denver-based design engineer, were sketching ideas out at a restaurant on a paper tablecloth — and in business.
“We chose to go ahead and go for it because it didn’t seem anybody was going to do this anytime soon,” Jered. “We couldn’t afford for our family to wait for somebody else to do it.”
What they came up with, along with a little manufacturing help from Protolabs, is LUCI, an attachable accessory system that brings smart technology to power wheelchairs for stability, security, and connectivity.
LUCI’s hardware and software combine to give power wheelchairs a 360° view of the world to avoid collisions and drop-offs and warn of tipping dangers. Cloud-based communications can alert loved ones of an accident and securely send user data to family and medical team members. LUCI incorporates stereo-vision cameras and infrared, ultrasonic, and radar sensors in a patented, first-of-its-kind system that gets mounted between the seat and wheels of a power wheelchair.
The Dean brothers, with Barry as CEO and Jered as chief technology officer, founded the LUCI company in 2017. After years of development, they began selling the LUCI system in early 2021. The product already has earned widespread recognition, named Time magazine’s Best Inventions of 2020, Popular Science’s Best of What’s New, a CES 2021 Health & Wellness Innovation Award, and Mobility Management’s “Smart Technology” Product Award.
Design Challenge: Developing Fast and Creating ‘Invisible’ Housings
In addition to their urgency to create a safer alternative for Katherine and other power wheelchair riders, the Deans’ announcement of their intent to develop such a product generated intense interest from wheelchair manufacturers. For the speed and flexibility required in the design, the Deans’ turned to Protolabs for the injection-molding of plastic prototypes and production parts. They also used Protolabs to prototype the sheet metal components and even handle services they hadn’t initially anticipated.
As a power wheelchair steers LUCI with a joystick or other means, onboard sensors map the surroundings to recognize anything in the way, from curbs and vehicles to pets and people. The mapping technology includes a pair of millimeter-wave radar sensors that detect the range, velocity, and angle of objects in the environment. The plastic housings that contain the radar sensors posed a design challenge, Jered said, because those housings need to be “invisible” to the business card-sized radar sensors. The housings have to be of a certain shape, material, and thinness to enable the radar devices to do their job of identifying potential hazards.
Another concern was finding a way of securely attaching all of the plastic housings holding LUCI’s various sensors and electronics to the system’s “smart frame,” Jered said. The frame is a sheet metal platform with several brackets that get mounted between the seat and wheels of a new or existing power wheelchair to install the LUCI system.
Offering a user experience that merges rider intent and independence with the protection and assistance that LUCI’s technology provides also was a priority. One expression of that, Jered said, needed to be through LUCI’s dashboard, its user interface. The dashboard, located on the wheelchair’s control panel, has four indicator lights to track Wi-Fi and cellular connection and sensor obstruction. He wanted each light to have a corresponding symbol that would identify its function while also being attractive and durable.
Solution: Iterative design, insert molding, pad printing
Jered used tech-enabled manufacturing’s online quoting system and automated manufacturing analysis to design plastic housings for LUCI’s sensors and electronics. Getting the design just right for the housings holding the millimeter-wave radar sensors further involved several calls with Protolabs engineers to tweak those plans. ABS plastic was recommended because it was durable, cost-effective, and compatible with the radar sensors. Crucially, the material was injection molded in a shape and at a thinness necessary for the radar devices to work properly.
Jered iterated rapidly on the housings, cutting test tools, having prototypes made, and working with Protolabs on revisions before making new tools for another round of prototyping. The process was more cost-effective.
When Jered mentioned his concern about securing the plastic housings to LUCI’S frame, insert molding was suggested. Insert molding, in this case, incorporates threaded metal inserts into LUCI’s molded plastic housings to improve their strength when they’re attached to the frame. Insert molding is working so well that Jered now uses it any time possible for attaching plastic parts securely to metal.
Jered also used sheet metal fabrication to prototype dozens of parts for the smart frame and brackets that hold LUCI’s sensors.
For LUCI’s dashboard, Jered had considered using stickers, labels, or engraving for the symbols that identify the purpose of each indicator light. He found a better solution in Protolabs’ pad printing process, which transfers a two-dimensional image, like a company logo, to a three-dimensional object. The pad-printed symbols are more attractive and durable.
Jered and Barry Dean felt a “super sense of urgency” to deliver LUCI to the market, given their personal stake and the high level of interest from potential users and the wheelchair industry.
“That urgency trickled through to everything, how we’re doing our manufacturing, how we’re doing our product development, our sales,” Jered said. “All those things go to how can we get LUCI to the broadest number of users possible. It’s the difference between someone being able to independently drive themselves and somebody being pushed or not having that freedom in all locations. That’s a lot of pressure on getting it out, getting it right, and getting it done.”
That speed and lower tooling costs make digital manufacturing providers like Protolabs a cost-effective choice, Jered said. While piece-part prices are a little higher initially, they become more favorable with on-demand manufacturing.
Filed Under: Medical