January 9, 2008
Can you remember a time without wheelchairs? Probably not. According to wheelchairnet.org, the earliest found image of a wheelchair is incised in stone on a 6th century Chinese sarcophagus. In the 16th century, King Philip II of Spain used an elaborate rolling chair with movable arm and leg rests. (More about the history of wheelchairs can be found here.)
While wheelchairs have been around for ages, they've been readily available at affordable prices in some areas of the world, such as Vietnam, for a relatively short time. A tribute to Vietnamese wheelchairs, published on Thanhniem News.com Jan. 9, chronicles the story of one of Vietnam's two manufacturers who produce wheelchairs. It's an interesting story that likely is true of other areas.
As the story goes, "20 years ago, a decade after [Vietnam] emerged from a war in which thousands of veterans lost their legs, an engineer who was running a metal waste processing plant had an inspiration.
"Nguyen Tien Toan, a native of Phu Yen, recalled, 'As I traveled throughout the country to buy metal waste, I saw many people trudging around with heavy wooden legs.
"'At that time, people were finding it hard just to feed themselves, let alone buy expensive imported wheelchairs. So it occurred to me to make wheelchairs using the metal waste I was working with,' Toan said."
Toan, who had been manufacturing metal items, such as ploughs and bike parts, studied the design of an old American wheelchair to find ways to modify it so that he could make it with the materials available in Vietnam, and after a long struggle, successfully produced his first model, which he named Kien Tuong.
When the Military Medicine Bureau heard of Toan's success, it ordered 200 units, which were delivered in December 1987.
Toan's factory then began producing wheelchairs exclusively. In 2005, 60,000 chairs were produced and sold. Toan said, "From what I know, the number of people with disability in Vietnam is around six million, and 700,000 need wheelchairs. So, given that I'm one of only two wheelchair manufacturers, it will take us 10 to 15 years to meet the demand."
Toan has a clear vision of his company's domestic market for the next decade or so, but he's preparing for even more growth—thinking about exports and working on a model that he says will sell for around U.S.$150, considerably higher than his local cost of $60.
"One of these days, disabled people in countries like Laos, Cambodia, Iran, and Iraq will use my wheelchairs," Toan says.
What's to be learned from Toan"s experience besides the casualties of war? It's important to observe the world around you and look for opportunities to fill a need. Doing so can fill your pockets.
The article These aren't your grandparents wheelchairs on thefabricator.com offers a glimpse of a fascinating niche market in the wheelchair arena.