Shock-Absorbing Wheels Let Riders Rediscover the Thrill of Adventure
Critics said wheelchairs couldn't sport suspensions; SoftWheel proves them wrong
For as long as the wheel has been around, people have said that there’s no need to reinvent it. Indeed, ‘innovation’ and ‘invention’ are two distinct words, the former implying some level of iteration to better preexisting items while the latter is something completely new and mysterious. Neither novel nor boring ideas ever exist on one end of the spectrum though—take SoftWheel, for example, a company reshaping the experience of riding wheelchairs.
PSFK chatted with SoftWheel’s CEO Daniel Barel to learn what makes this wheel unique from the rest, along with how current implementations service hundreds of wheelchair-bound Israeli and American veterans.
Since inception, Israeli startup SoftWheel has always pushed the boundaries of what’s possible amid extreme skepticism. Unconventionally, the company set out to reinvent the wheel (on a wheelchair), throwing in the suspension capabilities that everyone deemed impossible.
“SoftWheel started as a mistake really…initially we designed the suspension to be implemented in the wheelchair and not the wheel itself,” says Barel.
“We quickly understood that that wasn’t a pragmatic solution. We hadn’t done our homework, there was simply too much sagging and bobbing for it to ever be comfortable.”
But, why design a suspension for a wheelchair in the first place? Barel explains that it has always been about freedom. For those tied down to a constantly-at-rest position, effortless maneuvers like walking down a flight of stairs or any steep incline/decline suddenly become an arduous task. Moreover, sitting in a chair for prolonged periods of time is a prime recipe for back pain—potentially even breakage—especially when that chair rolls over rocks, pebbles and other bumpy surfaces. For those reasons, Barel decided to change wheelchairs for the better—not just to provide enhanced mobility without the pain, but to help those who lost feeling rediscover the thrill of adventure.
“People who have given a lot for their countries should be able to be given some back,” suggests Barel, referencing his wide network of distributors in the U.S. market. New distributors include Resolute Adaptive, Nu Motion, and organizations such as Living Spinal, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, and The Shepherd Center.
Back in Israel, where the company is headquartered, a mandatory draft turns civilians into soldiers to protect and fight for their country. Many Israelis injured on the battlefield or in training end up suffering from unrecoverable damages, the likes of which force them to lead the rest of their lives on wheelchairs. This has given SoftWheel a platform for change.
The patented wheel-suspension technology focuses on energy-efficiency and smoother rides so people can confidently traverse rugged roads. Since the suspension aspect takes 30 percent of propulsion energy, rides will be far less straining on the back.
“In the wheelchair industry we’re talking about people’s freedom. For that reason alone we never compromise at SoftWheel; one of our designs took over a year—when we weren’t happy with it we took it to the shredder and started over,” says Barel.
“Its all about providing customers the best product. If it’s not meticulously designed and built then it will never reach maturity. We pride ourselves in our design, we never take shortcuts.”
Currently the company has five different models out on the market and is celebrating the launch of its sixth. SoftWheel’s Acrobat A is made of aerospace aluminum, a high-tensile strength material with superlative fatigue resistance and exceptional durability. Acrobat M makes the company among three in the world to produce wheels made of magnesium, an alloy that’s difficult to craft but yields incredible shock-absorption capabilities and is 30 percent lighter than aluminum. Acrobat R is designed around the specifications of hand bikes, intended for reaching higher velocities and resistance to impact.
The company’s latest addition is the Acrobat C, its top offer made of carbon.
Soon after the company kick started production, it realized that wheelchairs aren’t the only use case for its suspension wheels. Employing the same rigorous code for researching and designing its wheelchairs, the company started offering models for bicycles, cars and even aircraft landing gears. SoftWheel Fluent is a versatile product that works for both manual and electric bikes, while Fluent B offers unparalleled comfort and stability with a nearly 85 percent decrease in production and sharing cost, perfect for the urban bike sharing systems it intends to service.
“We are looking at a SoftWheel landing gear for aircrafts based on multiple requests from the industry,” says Barel. “They tell us that we have something they’ve been waiting for the past 60 years.”
For all intensive purposes, SoftWheel succeeds at what it set out to accomplish: removing the back pain and sometimes treacherous journey associated with using a wheelchair. While the company has found success in its expansion to other industries, there’s no denying its humble beginnings as a ‘good intentions meets happy accident’ story. Its ruthless fight for the smoothest ride empowers users by reviving the sense of adventure that was lost at one point during or after their injury.