We’ve all dreamed at least once about getting one of those neat folding bikes. The problem is, a bike’s wheels can’t possibly fold. So you either have to shrink the wheels, clown-style, or you carry around a "portable" bike with a pair of massive wheels. Within a few milliseconds, logic disenchants the urban commuting dream, and we slam the SkyMall catalog closed in disgust. (Can you slam a catalog shut? Sure you can.)
But working since 2007, London design studio Vitamins has created a real, folding wheel that can fit on perfectly normal bikes. "Starting with the tire first, not the mechanism, was definitely the ‘eureka’ moment on this project," lead designer Duncan Fitzsimons tells Co.Design.
After several failed prototypes, in which inflatable tires would explode under weight and contortion, they realized the question was not "how do you make a wheel fold?" but "how do you make a tire fold?" And the answer to that question was a solid tire. With the new tire in place, the way the Folding Wheel works could be relatively simple: A pair of spokes folds out like a Hoberman sphere, giving the wheel shape and bearing weight, while a third, solid spoke actually serves as a lock to guarantee the wheel stays open.
What the studio didn’t expect was that their wheel might have a purpose beyond the high-end bike industry.
"Suddenly we started getting emails from wheelchair users," Vitamins Director Adrian Westaway recounts. "They were asking if the wheel could be modified to be used on wheelchairs. The emails kept coming in, and we decided to research how we could start creating a design solution."
Many of the people who’d reached out to Vitamins actually began working with the design firm on a modified folding wheel that would be suitable for wheelchairs. The solid tire wasn’t an issue—while Vitamins had developed an inflatable version that worked, wheelchairs use standard solid tires. Vitamins added a comfortable, folding handrim, and they found a manufacturing partner to produce it in lightweight glass-fiber reinforced plastic. So while their original bike wheel was an expensive, aluminum performance accessory that never entered mass manufacture, the new wheelchair wheel, in production by Maddak now, should be priced for the masses. It’s pretty amazing that it was Vitamins’ secondary product—the one they never even imagined—that will have the most impact.
"It turns out that, while a folding wheel is useful for cyclists, it can actually be life changing for wheelchair users," Westaway writes. "There are so many problems associated with storing and transporting wheelchairs, and the biggest problem is the wheel size. For example, many wheelchair users have to store their precious wheelchair in the hold of a plane when flying, because the wheels just can’t fit in the overhead lockers. Wheelchair users often have a very limited choice when it comes to choosing a new car, because many are just too small to fit a wheelchair. "
Even if you’re not working on a folding wheel of your own, there’s a good innovation lesson here for us all: Sometimes our own interests can vastly limit our scope, when there’s actually a much bigger population (and market) eager for your creativity’s attention.