Local systems strengthening for manufacturing assistive technology
Assistive technology (AT) is often manufactured in places located far away from the intended users. The fragility of global supply chains, and the fact that some personalisation is often required for AT, means that those with AT needs cannot always get the products they need. Research fellow Dr Ben Oldfrey is working with local partners in countries across the world to see how local manufacturing and innovation can support the supply of AT.
Globalisation and the mass manufacture of products has been critical to the development of society. In relation to AT, this has enabled the creation of products to support people with a range of disabilities. While globalisation and mass manufacture is likely to be the primary model for some time yet, there are clear gaps in the model that need to be addressed.
These gaps include the ability to make products bespoke, repair products and get spare parts. If AT products are manufactured geographically far from the user, the components are often far away too. In addition, the globalised model means that skills and expertise are only located in certain parts of the world, which reduces the ability for particular countries and regions to gain these skills and become more resilient. From a sustainability perspective too, the globalised model means a high focus on imports and exports, and logistical difficulty in recovering components and returning them to manufacturers when a product has completed its usefulness.
Strengthening local systems to make change
In response to this, Dr Ben Oldfrey is working on ways to strengthen local systems, so that some AT can be manufactured and repaired locally.
“This project is strongly influenced by a sub-programme I led in relation to the local production of medical supplies during the Covid-19 pandemic, Covid-19 brought the issues of resilience and equitable access to goods to the forefront. Through this project, I worked with nine innovators in five different countries – mostly in Africa – to look at local ecosystems and see how they could be used to supply the medical products needed.”
Oldfrey is applying this same concept to AT more broadly across the world. The purpose is not to replace globalised models, but to find the gaps in these models and fill them. The aim is to create local production systems, where items are produced in a localised system, although not necessarily in one spot. By working with local partners, Oldfrey is identifying what the local production capacities in an area are, and enabling them to work in unison.
Collaborative manufacturing models have the potential to bring capacities into communities in an incredibly self-sustaining way. This is not about creating new manufacturing plants for AT, but looking at the current systems in places, and seeing where certain elements of the manufacturing process can be attached. Many localities around the world have greatly skilled engineers and other experts already located within them, but these experts are applying their skills to other products. By tapping into this expert knowledge and local production systems that are already in place, this could be a powerful way to meet AT needs and help communities and countries prosper.
Oldfrey’s first partner project is in Nepal, working with Zener Technologies and Kathmandu University. They have developed the Enabling Fridays community together, and been having in-depth discussions with local actors who have a stake in AT in the country, including clinicians and those with prosthetic needs, with a focus on trying to improve mobility for disabled individuals. This local stakeholder group is setting the direction of what the needs are within their communities.
Since mobility is the initial focus of the group, Oldfrey is working with them to understand how wheelchair provision is currently managed. In addition, they are looking at two test cases where the individuals concerned require bespoke AT products based on very specific needs. One is an individual who has had a partial hand amputation, and needs various functionality to help them drive. The second is an individual who requires a custom prosthetic liner, due to a trans-tibial (below the knee) amputation and significant scar tissue. Looking at these two test cases will enable the team to see how the local community may be able to handle elements of bespoke manufacture in AT too.
After Nepal, Oldfrey has plans to work with other partners in Delhi and Nairobi.
Oldfrey started his education in physics, gaining a Physics Master’s followed by a Biology Master’s, before embarking on a PhD researching how wearable sensors, 3D printing and deep learning could be used to create smart prosthetic liners. As his career has progressed, he has gained a strong interest in creating tangible solutions to help people. “I need a clear utility to what I’m doing,” Oldfrey said. “This project is an extension of that, using global-local expertise to develop local ecosystems and enable communities to innovate. If goods are always imported, local communities lose opportunities for economic development and building resilience. If more AT can be produced closer to the point of care of a disabled individual, everyone benefits.”