A Deeper Look at Magic Wheelchair’s Passion Projects

Magic Wheelchair is a non-profit organization that builds costumes for children in wheelchairs, at no cost to their families. Last month we shared Magic Wheelchair’s story through an interview with executive director Christine Getman. This month, we take an in-depth look into some of Magic Wheelchair’s projects that combine technology, artistry and community to “transform wheelchairs into magic.”

Customized Costumes

Every costume is personalized in accordance with the child’s specific requests, with the only limit being their imagination. When designing Jonah’s Max-D monster truck costume, for example, the makers incorporated personal touches such as branding the tires with Jonah’s initials.

Jonah’s wheelchair costume tire versus the original Max-D’s tire. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

“We try to really focus on what the kiddos like, and not just the first thing that comes to mind,” said Christine Getman in an interview with engineering.com. “We show them more photos to really make sure that even if it is a Batmobile, we include more features that are special to them—for example, if it’s a certain year, make or model. We’ll even give them adaptive buttons to shoot Nerf darts. We want it to be as much of their personality and idea as possible, so they feel empowered and heard and seen for the right reasons.”

In the case of Ben, the build team accommodated his love for various motorcycles by merging details from the Akira bike and the Tron light cycle, together with an Indian Motorcycle–inspired fork and handlebars in order to create a futuristic motorbike.

Intricately linked electronics were a major part of the build. Apart from installing LEDs along the body and the wheels, a special dashboard consisting of lights and buttons was implemented for Ben to play with, and additional audio elements gave Ben the ability to rev the engine at the push of a button.

LEDs along Ben’s futuristic motorbike. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

Costumes are also tailored to fit the unique physical requirements of every child, Christine explained. “We take into account mobility issues—if the kiddos need to reach their wheels to push their wheelchair, or if they have use of their hands. It really depends on the child’s needs and what kind of device they use.”

One major concern for builders is the weight, movement and transportability of the final costume. A significant amount of effort goes toward ensuring that the wheelchair costume can be maneuvered with relative ease by children and their caretakers. This can be challenging with designs such as monster trucks, mega-bikes and similar costumes. Ben’s motorcycle costume, for example, was ten feet long and over three feet wide. For these designs, build teams often attempt to lighten the costume by 3D printing as many components as possible.

Ben and his futuristic mega-bike. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

“We’re focusing on making the costumes lightweight and durable, with the ability to break them down into pieces for potential bedroom decorations,” said Christine.

3D Design and 3D Printing to Build and Add Detail

“Many costumes have a combination of both 3D printing and manual builds,” related Christine. “Some builders are more hands-on and less technical, but will use 3D printing for embellishments of the costumes or for mounting the pieces to the wheelchair. I’ve had other builders actually use a CAD model to design the costume, but then they don’t print it. Other times the costumes are entirely 3D printed from head to toe. Every single one is different. But I would say probably half of the costumes have incorporated 3D design or 3D printing.”

CAD modeling of motorcycle dashboard. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

CAD modeling is an excellent tool for verifying prototypes before starting out on builds—reducing the risk of wasted effort. “3D design allows us to scale the costumes to the size of the wheelchair before we start cutting any foam or plastic. It lets us make it a really custom personalized fit for the child,” Christine said.

SOLIDWORKS proved especially useful when working on Jonah’s monster truck costume. When the SOLIDWORKS build team first interviewed Jonah, he provided them with a model version of his favorite monster truck, the Max-D. The builders took detailed pictures of the model along with green screen photographs of Jonah in his wheelchair and precise measurements of the wheelchair itself.

During their research, the build team found that they could obtain a CAD model of Jonah’s Permobil wheelchair—as Permobil was a SOLIDWORKS customer. This gave the team a baseline of the wheelchair and saved them a lot of time during the modeling phase. Superimposing all the costume elements onto the wheelchair model inside SOLIDWORKS gave the makers confidence that the Max-D costume was going to fit perfectly when they were done with the build.

3D scanning Jonah in his wheelchair. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

Christine provided some further perspective. “What I’ve noticed with folks who are starting in 3D design, it feels like the project is slower because so much more is happening on the computer. But when it’s time to fabricate, it is done in a matter of days. Whereas other folks, if they are hands-on from start to finish, you see something tangible early on but it’s much slower growth. Both processes are beautiful to watch, and both of them have created some great, great costumes.”

“What I like about the services that we offer builders is that anyone can build with us. Whether you are technically savvy, or you’ve never operated a computer in your life, we have a program to let you build with us,” she added. “We always say ‘epic inclusion’—I don’t think people realize we really do mean that in every facet, from the builder experience, to the kiddos, to the crowd.”

One thing is for certain: even if builders have never worked with 3D design, they have the tools to learn. All Magic Wheelchair volunteers have free access to the 3DEXPERIENCE platform for planning, designing and fabricating their costumes. The dashboard and its tools can be used by build communities to manage the creative ideation, team dynamics, content, job duties, schedule and supplies throughout the entire build process—all in one cohesive place.

“It’s a synergistic experience,” says Chin-Loo Lama, team lead for a Mandolorian-themed build. “It’s very inspiring to see [the builders] constantly growing, helping each other, trading secrets and shopping lists—there’s this constant rejuvenating knowledge base. [Magic Wheelchair makers] have access to the 3DEXPERIENCE platform and its CAD tools including SOLIDWORKS, xDesign, xShape, along with its project planning apps. We can track our projects, share models, enjoy friendly competition and secret communities. It’s a very nice way to separate what’s private, and gives you full control over how different groups can collaborate as a team when they want, but have the freedom to work in their own silos as well.”

Jonah’s “Mini-Max-D” Monster Truck

When the SOLIDWORKS team was tasked with bringing Jonah’s Max-D costume to life, they considered every detail—from wheel size and chassis design all the way down to lights and waterproofing. Mechanisms were put into place for making the wheels rotate, and electronic components such as LEDs and batteries were evaluated for placement and weight.

The “mini-Max-D” costume was scaled to approximately 42 percent of the original Max-D monster truck that would be showcased at Monster Jam; this was so the costume could fit easily into Jonah’s parents’ van. By virtually prototyping the costume in SOLIDWORKS, the build team was able to go straight from design to production while cutting down on trial and error.

Design including wheelchair model and PVC frame. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

The wheelchair was incorporated into the design of the costume with great success. An attachable car body was connected to a PVC frame set on casters, and the wheels were designed to be removable so that the car would come apart at the back to make it easier for Jonah to get into the costume. While the PVC chassis was originally planned to be on three wheels for maneuverability over rough terrain, the team changed the chassis construction to four wheels for improved stability.

Three-wheel chassis versus four-wheel chassis. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

3DEXPERIENCE Lab’s CNC machine was used to fabricate custom parts for the Max-D. As this was the first time for many builders to work with the costume materials, the team spent some time experimenting with adhesive and sanding equipment. Elements of the monster truck were machined and sanded, then assembled by gluing and screwing body parts together. Everything was primed, hard-coated and hand-painted down to the last detail. Even the Max-D’s spikes and rivets were made to scale, and black rubber was laser-cut to create treads in the wheels.

Spike design and prototyping. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

LEDs and acrylic were tested for creating the fire effect on the sides of the costume—as though the Max-D was setting the road on fire. Currents were regulated using switching regulators instead of linear ones, in order to ensure the lights wouldn’t get too hot, and the placement of the wires and power source was carefully determined. Additional lights were selected for the dashboard, interior, undercarriage, headlights and taillights, as well as for the Max-D’s “faces.”

Testing acrylic with LED lighting. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

The Max-D’s face was one of the most detailed pieces of the costume. As none of the Dremels in the lab were suitable for the intricate sanding that was necessary, the build team used an electric toothbrush with sandpaper attached to its head in order to sand the mini-Max-D’s face to perfection.

Sanding the Max-D’s face with an electric toothbrush for precision. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

Close to the end of the build, the team tested the mini-Max-D’s stability with a dry fit, where the team visited Jonah’s home and attached the chassis to his wheelchair. The fitting was a success, and Jonah took the chassis on a trial ride off-roading in his grassy backyard while rolling over the rough terrain like a real monster truck.

Jonah in the chassis for his costume’s dry fit. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

The finished mini-Max-D was revealed to Jonah at Monster Jam. The wheelchair costume was perfectly painted, with massive wheels, acrylic flames lit by fiery LEDs, a color-changing LED trim shining along the bottom, a sponsor panel featuring actual sponsor logos, and hyper-realistic spikes and rivets.

Jonah fit perfectly into his monster truck without any lag, wobbling or rattling, and was able to reach the maximum speed of his wheelchair, brake easily—even do donuts. After the real Max-D’s driver Tom signed the wheelchair costume, the build team went the extra mile by taking the costume back to SOLIDWORKS at the end of the event, and hard-coating the hood to preserve Tom’s signature.

The build team with the Max-D costume. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

Jonah’s story illustrates how Magic Wheelchair can use technology through design challenges to make a positive difference in the world. You don’t need a wand or spells to make magic happen.

This is the second article of a two-part series. Visit this page to read the first part of the Magic Wheelchair story.

Learn about SOLIDWORKS in the healthcare industry with the whitepaper Simulating for Better Health.

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