Most of the mainstream news detailing the use of composites in manufacturing relate to aerospace, marine, automotive, or sporting goods applications. What we do not hear a lot about is the use of composites to help the disabled. But composites are helping the disabled live better lives, and that is worth talking about.
One example of a composite material making an enormous difference is carbon fiber. As you may already know, carbon fiber is one of the hottest products for bicycle frames right now. Carbon fiber is lighter than aluminum and steel but just as strong. A bike frame made from the composite offers a bit more rigidity and a more comfortable ride as well.
It turns out that carbon fiber tubing is a great material for mobility devices too. Take the average aluminum wheelchair, for example. Although lightweight aluminum alloys have certainly lead to better wheelchairs in the last decade, carbon fiber is even better.
A carbon fiber wheelchair is significantly lighter than an aluminum chair. It is stronger as well, allowing for greater weight limits without sacrificing integrity. Carbon fiber wheelchairs are easier to use, easier to transfer in and out of, and easier to store.
Things We Don’t Think About
One of the reasons we do not hear a lot about composites being used to make the lives of the disabled better is the simple fact that we don’t tend to think about the unique needs of people whose abilities are challenged by mental or physical problems. But those challenges are very real.
Take the case of a concrete train platform in Billerica, MA that collapsed a couple of years ago. The collapse resulted in the Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority closing the handicap accessible platforms at their West Natick Station. Those platforms acted as a lifeline to allow wheelchair-bound passengers to easily board trains via a combination of ramps and elevated platforms.
To the average train user, the absence of the mobility platforms was a non-issue. It is probably safe to say that many commuters didn’t even notice they were missing. But their absence was very noticeable to disabled passengers who were forced to find another train station to board at.
What was the solution? A new handicap accessible platform constructed of carbon fiber deck panels. According to Composites World magazine, the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety finally approved the new platform design earlier this year. Contractors set about fabricating two carbon fiber platforms to match the design of the original concrete platforms, thus mitigating the need to redesign the entire thing from scratch.
Lighter, Stronger, Better
It goes without saying that the carbon fiber solution is lighter, stronger, and better than the concrete platforms it replaced. In addition, carbon fiber is more durable. New concrete platforms would have required regular maintenance throughout their lifetimes, where the carbon fiber platforms will require very little maintenance.
The icing on the cake was an eight-hour per platform installation that was conducted on a weekend so as not to disrupt commuter traffic. Try doing that with concrete. It wouldn’t happen in a single weekend, that’s for sure.
Composite materials are by no means perfect. In fact, Utah-based Rock West Composites says that composites are a long way from completely replacing steel, aluminum, concrete and other manufacturing materials. But what we can already do with composites is making life better for a lot of people.
In Massachusetts, carbon fiber has made the lives of disabled train passengers better by giving them a new platform for boarding trains in Billerica. There’s not much more to say.