Active Hands

Workshopshed:  Engineer and Sportsman Rob Smith runs Active Hands, a company that makes assistive technology for people with gripping problems. Whilst on holiday as a student, Rob fell down a cliff and suffered a spinal injury. After 9 months of recovery and rehab, Rob returned to his Mechanical engineering degree at Warwick University.

Workshopshed: Hi Rob, thanks for being interviewed, what were the challenges of being a student with disabilities?

Rob Smith: I had my injury between my second and third year of uni.  My spinal cord injury is an incomplete injury so I have some limited use of my lower body but my hand function is very poor.  I went back to uni to finish my degree after a year in hospital and was determined to get around using crutches.  To be honest it was really hard work.  I was so proud of myself and had worked so hard to be able to walk short distances that it seemed like this is how I should continue at uni.

However looking back on it now I was so slow and it took so much effort and planning to get around, carry things and be a student wish I had actually decided to use my wheelchair much earlier on after my injury.  I did miss out on a few things by being stubborn about walking. There was plenty of disabled parking, lifts, etc and the campus was very good for access but just getting to a lecture could mean a 20 min crutch walk even for short distances and using my wheelchair, in reality, would have made me much less “Disabled” than I actually was during that time.

The Uni were good and I had extended time to write at exams and they offered me assistance if I needed it but I was still coming to terms with what had happened to me so looking back now I probably could have made that final year of study much easier than it was.

Workshopshed: How did an engineering degree help with preparing you for setting up and running a business?

Rob: I have always been interested in designing and making.  My degree gave me the additional knowledge and extra technical and mathematical grounding in engineering that gave me confidence in my design skills.  It also helped me realise that I very much preferred simplicity of design over complication and highly technical solutions.  My third year project was a third world applicable low tech design solution and I felt this was a much more interesting thing to work on than highly mathematical and complex systems where you are often very detached from the person/application who will eventually use it.

Workshopshed: What are the engineering challenges of designing gripping aids?

Rob: Working in neoprene has its challenges as it moves about and stretches a lot during manufacture.  However, it has some great properties and we have found ways to get the most out of it and put it to good use.  We are also working on a few other designs at the moment, some using similar materials and concepts but others quite different.  I have found this interesting and challenging.  It has been a very different way to work when you have to get 3D prints of components made and then commit to injection molds being made that cannot really be changed.  However, all our products always try and solve solutions with simple, easy to use solutions with our specific customers in mind.

Workshopshed: You started out using your mum’s sewing machine, what do you have now?

Rob: We still have 5 staff who work from home on industrial sewing machines we have bought them.  They manufacture the lower volume products.  We also have work done for us at a factory in Cornwall.  They manufacture (still by hand, but at higher volumes) most of the products that sell in higher volumes.  We also work with other UK individuals and companies to help develop new products and who manufacture components for us for some of our new products or prototypes.

Workshopshed: Am I correct in thinking that the first gripping aid was to help you with weight training, what kind of range do you have now?

Rob: We have a number of products for use in the gym, at home for gardening, DIY, Kitchen use etc.  We also have a few new ones in the pipeline.  We have branched out into products for people with many other disabilities/conditions as well as just those with spinal cord injuries.

These users have very different needs and we have had to learn about these and design accordingly.  We now sell a number of our own manufactured products as well as some from other companies.  We have decided to make ourselves stand out from other companies however by only ever focusing on products for people with reduced hand function – hence the name.

All of our products are available from our webshop: https://www.activehands.com/shop/

Workshopshed: What’s next for Active Hands?

Rob: We have 2 new products which we hope to launch in the next couple of months.  We also have a number of products in the pipeline and prototype stage.  Our mission is to become the ‘go to’ place in the world for hand function disability products.  We probably are not far off already but we need to keep adding new products and continue to advertise so that so that people anywhere in the world will come to us for all reduced hand function solutions.

One of the best places to stay up-to-date is by following our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/activehandsco/

Workshopshed: Thanks Rob, a fascinating journey and some excellent products and engineering to help people complete both ordinary and extraordinary tasks.

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