Keith Barney was 14 in January 1974 when a hunting companion accidentally shot him in the back near his home in Idaho Falls, Idaho. The blast from the .20-gauge shotgun left him incapable of moving his legs. Six months of therapy made him acutely aware of how important mobility is to everyone. One of the barriers to his mobility was the ``old nursing home model'' wheelchair he got after leaving the rehabilitation program at the University of Utah. Its only adjustment was for leg length.
If the chair's lack of adjustments wasn't enough, the instructions on how to use it were terse. Hospital officials, he said, simply told him to ``go and live your life.''
He's managed in a remarkable way to do that. He left Idaho Falls and returned to Salt Lake City, his second home through his therapy program. He earned a bachelor's degree at Brigham Young University, then a master's degree in social work at Portland State College in Portland, Ore. He became licensed in theraputic recreation, ``to help [handicapped] people waste less time.''
Barney's struggle back to mobility is a key to the development of the Z-700 Ultra-Light Advanced Composite Folding Wheelchair, the first production injection molded, general-duty wheelchair, on display Feb. 6-8 at the Medical Design & Manufacturing Show in Anaheim, Calif.
The Z-700 incorporates light weight and adjustability with less brittleness than thermoset plastic models - at a fraction of the cost.
Remarkable, too, is the developmental boost given by Dow Chemical Co. of Midland, Mich., and resin distributor M.A. Hanna Co. of Cleveland, both of which contributed to a $125,000 loan and access to Dow's long glass-fiber Isoplast thermoplastic resins for the two brothers who worked with Barney to make the chair.
Weighing less than 30 pounds and priced between $800 and $1,000, the Z-700 brings comfort, efficiency, adjustability and durability at a price level that Medicare will reimburse. Aside from adjustment bolts, there are only three metal pieces on the chair: two supports that help it fold and the backrest.
Development of a good, inexpensive wheelchair has been too long in coming, said Barney. ``Better things came along in 1979-80 - but since 1980, there's been very little innovation in the market.''
``There are plenty of racing models and heavy, metal clunkers available,'' said Barney. ``This Z-700 wheelchair is the best for the average person's needs. The plastics allowed us to make a chair not just lighter, but it fits the person better, with better performance.''
It reverses the thinking that the more adjustment parameters put into a wheelchair, the more it must cost, he said. The Z-700 is made with 16 molds on standard Toshiba injection molding machines using a cold screw. The machines have clamping forces of 120, 250 and 390 tons.
The chair's parts require 26 minutes of molding time. Manufacturer Zero Gravity Medical Inc., a division of Minneapolis-based prosthetic maker Otto Bock Orthopedic Industry Inc., expects to go to larger machines with two- or four-cavity molds from a single-cavity setup.
The story of the chair's development is as remarkable as its engineering. Barney had been working for four years as a counselor to newly handicapped patients at Western Rehabilitation Institute in Sandy, Utah, in 1991 when engineer and neighbor Tony Pearce asked his help to produce a reasonably priced, lightweight wheelchair.
``I basically trashed [Tony's] first idea,'' Barney said. ``He was just looking to reproduce a round tube chair in plastic. It had all the problems of the old version, with no serious advantages. Then he began to think more about the material than about the chair.''
Barney worked with Tony and his brother Terry, also an engineer, in their development firm, now called TekSource, ``as an idea man and a sounding board, not an entrepreneur. Tony needed the guidance. As time went on, I got interested in the marketing.''
Said Terry Pearce: ``We went to plastics so that we could build in a lot of adjustability and detail to the product that would be too expensive to do in metal. We didn't reduce the part count dramatically, but we were able to reduce the weight to a more attractive price point.
``At TekSource, our charter is to develop new technology into products, then partner with manufacturers and go on to the next product,'' he said.
It was in this manner that TekSource spun off Zero Gravity to Otto Bock, Terry said.
Other than the wheelchair, TekSource does no production molding.
The three of them proposed their idea to Dow Chemical and Hanna.
What this proves, said Terry Pearce, is that ``suppliers are willing to cooperate with [small manufacturers] if they have something unique that will sell a lot of resin. But they have to ask.''
They produced their first fully functional wheelchairs last November.
This year, Barney will visit at least six trade shows, train independent field representatives, work in the marketing program and do research and development for Zero Gravity Medical. He also will review and coordinate testing input from up to 80 people with disabilities for his company.
And at some point, he'll spend some time with his wife and three children.