The Standard Life GB Wheelchair Basketball teams have unveiled innovative world-leading bespoke customised seats, integrated into their competition wheelchairs.
The seats and modified wheelchairs are the end result of more than two years' work by UK Sport's Research and Innovation team and a number of partners, who have collaborated to provide complementary cutting edge expertise.
The partners involved in the programme have included Loughborough University Sports Technology Institute; British Wheelchair Basketball; BMW; contour886, specialists in custom-moulded seating; RGK, chair suppliers to GB wheelchair basketball teams; and BAE Systems.
Each partner had a clearly defined role, which contributed to the success of the project, with challenges at each stage being surmounted through the project team's problem solving and calling on each other's individual areas of expertise.
The process started in 2009 as part of UK Sport's Research and Innovation programme, which supports Britain's best athletes towards success on the world stage.
UK Sport, through its five-year partnership with defence specialists BAE Systems, began by surveying the opinions of players and coaching staff on their existing wheelchairs, and the results clearly highlighted an opportunity to optimise performance by introducing a fully customised seat for each player, which was then designed by Loughborough University.
Loughborough then worked closely with contour886 to bring the design to life. Contour886's clinical approach identified the unique level of support athletes required to enhance their sitting balance and physical ability on court and a mould of each player was made, fitted and adjusted to create this critical seating position.
Contour886 used a thermoforming process to make the first seats from these moulds and the project team's attention then turned to the crucial element of how the seat would interface with the chair, as identifying the optimal position for each athlete is fundamental to maximising performance.
RGK has been manufacturing sports wheelchairs for 24 years and was therefore instrumental to the success of the project in customising the frames to accommodate the new seats in the optimal position.
Finally, with both a seat prototype that was customised to individual players and a frame that allowed for flexibility and optimum positioning, a partner was needed who could produce the seats with greater accuracy and robustness than is possible with thermoforming.
BMW provided the means of rapid and precision production, utilising its in-house rapid manufacture expertise. 3D scan data of the seat moulds enabled computer models to be generated, from which BMW was able to produce customised, DuraForm seats for the players in a matter of weeks.
The BMW production processes also allowed the seats to be manufactured with a uniform thickness, thus improving the effectiveness of material performance - a crucial benefit to the players.
The seats, which will initially just be used by mid-point athletes, save a kilo of weight, with the overall chair two kilos lighter than those used previously through modification to the chair itself. In customising the seats to individual players, the risk of injury due to uneven pressure distribution within the seat has also been reduced.
The new seat has also already delivered tangible performance benefits in testing. Loughborough University Sports Technology Institute has conducted a series of tests alongside British Wheelchair Basketball (BWB), which have shown optimised performance in three main areas:
Increased speed over agility course – time decreased from 10.1s to 9.94s*
Greater straight line speed – time decreased from 5.11s to 4.97s for 20m
Decreased time to get back up on wheels when chair topples over, based on anecdotal feedback from players
*All stats based on testing over a six-month period with basketball player Ade Orogbemi
The International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) has delivered high praise for the project, saying: "The new seat design is a significant step forward in the technical aspects of the wheelchair for the sport. It is an innovative idea and one that has not been seen anywhere in the world before."
Additionally players who have tried the seats say that it has improved their confidence and given them a psychological boost over their competition. Ade Orogbemi, who was the first and only athlete to use the fully completed seat and modified wheelchair at the Paralympic World Cup, said: "The new seat has improved my game enormously from how I was playing in my old chair.
"The stability it allows me to have now gives me the ability to turn quickly both going right and left, which I was unable to do before.
"The extra speed it gives me around the court makes it easier to defend against the best attacking sides in the world to give us that unique advantage.
"I believe it is allowing me to play my best ever basketball which is not only good for me but for the whole team."
UK Sport now hopes to extend the process to low-point and high-point players who present a greater challenge due to varied core strength and regulation restrictions respectively, affecting the ease with which seats can be customised and positioned in the chair correctly.
Alison Macpherson, UK Sport's Research and Innovation Coordinator, who brought this unique partnership of organisations together to deliver the project, said: "We are already seeing that our work on Paralympic technology projects is having a real positive impact on athlete performance and wellbeing, which bodes extremely well for our athletes' prospects in major international competitions, where there will hopefully be more to come both on this project and other innovations we are investigating.
"The way that so many partners, ranging from independent experts at contour886 to global companies like BMW, have come together to make the concept a reality has been a true reflection of the Paralympic spirit."