Open to current and recent design engineering students, the James Dyson Award is an international design award that celebrates, encourages and inspires the next generation of design engineers.
The National Winner of this year’s James Dyson Award is Wheelson – a clever and versatile bicycle attachment that makes carrying heavy loads for cyclists safe and easy. Against the backdrop of greener methods of mobility being encouraged in the country, the team of six inventors from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) were struck by the common, everyday relatable problem of how difficult it is to manoeuvre a bicycle while carrying a load in the front basket.
As National Winners, the team have been awarded S$3,400. Wheelson will now move on to compete against other international projects for the position of top 20, and they are also now in the running for the title of International Winner.
We speak to Wilson Lim from the team about how Wheelson was conceptualised, the design challenges and the plans for Wheelson in the future.
Proud parents of Wheelson include (from left) Glenn Chia, Wilson Lim Wei Sheng, Leong Kei Sheng and Keerthana Janmugam. Not pictured are Ang Wei Jie and Sarah Ong.
What was the initial idea and how did it evolve to become the final design as Wheelson?
The idea came about when we noticed the cyclists on campus had difficulty maneuvering their bicycles when they carried heavy loads on their backs or front baskets. Because of how unstable they were, the safety of the cyclist, pedestrians and also drivers on the road were at risk.
In order to solve this problem, we knew that the product had to satisfy these two main criteria:
1) Counteract the instability of the rider/ provide stability to the rider when riding with a load
2) Modularity of the device for ease of installation
With these fundamental considerations, we came up with some concept sketches on what the solution could look like. Many of these initial concepts were complex. While they sounded cool and futuristic on paper, we realized that they either had little real-world benefit to the user, or they just did not make engineering sense at all.
We eventually narrowed down our ideas to the most elegant solution: Attaching a pair of training wheels that supported a platform that could support heavy baskets. This marked the beginning of Wheelson as we see it today.
The initial iterations were inadequate and could barely provide any support to the bicycle itself, let alone have the user sit on it. At each checkpoint, we would go back to our fundamental considerations, re-analyze the bicycle frame, consolidate our user studies and document our learning points.
We learnt a lot through this iterative design process. For example, we learnt about the critical points of the bicycle on which Wheelson could be attached to, such that stability could be maximized. Through experimentation and numerous iterations, we were also able to figure out the optimal amount of suspension that would ensure a smooth riding experience for the user.
The current iteration of Wheelson that we have today truly provides stability to its users and offers modularity. We achieved this through engineering it with an adjustable height feature, and a clamping system that allows the user to fit Wheelson onto any bike effortlessly.
Are there close substitutes to the Wheelson? How is it set apart from existing products already available in the market?
As far as we know, Wheelson is the first of its kind to have a design that places the load next to the rear wheels within the rectangular frame of the bicycle.
We made the decision to go with caster wheels for the device. With caster wheels, we were able to lower the centre of gravity of the load, which in turn improves stability.
Another cool feature is that it attaches onto and detaches from bicycles very easily. The user can effortlessly detach Wheelson from their bicycle, and drag it into a grocery store or shopping mall where it can be used as a shopping cart.
In addition, Wheelson’s latch system is highly modular, with highly adjustable clamps to accommodate different types of bicycles. Wheelson also has a custom-built suspension system that makes it adept at handling any terrain and ensures that the payload is always safely stowed.
How long did it take to develop from the conception stage to developing the final product?
The design and development process of Wheelson took over 1.5 years, comprising problem formation, user studies and two iterations. During the development stage, our school featured our project in various product demonstrations. This gave us valuable feedback, which helped us to iteratively improve Wheelson. We hope to win the international prize, as the funds would enable us to commercialise Wheelson, and make it market-ready.
What were some of the biggest challenges and technical difficulties, and how were they overcome?
One of the biggest challenges was conceiving the solution. Wheelson is the only product of its kind in the world as no one else has done a similar design. Other designs either use a rear/front basket or a trailer. Thus, it was challenging to think of a solution that could perform better than the products that have been out in the market for many years.
Eventually, we overcame them by conducting user interviews on the pain points on using these other products. This led us to think of reducing Wheelson’s form factor and positioning closer to the bicycle frame with a lower centre of gravity. These fundamental principles which we’ve kept faithful to are what led to the final design of Wheelson as we see it today.
Was Wheelson produced entirely on campus with on-campus technology or outsourced to external producers?
Wheelson was built entirely in house and from raw materials purchased at nearby hardware shops. We used the fabrication lab in our school, which allowed us to cut the appropriate parts to length with precision. During the design phase, we also relied on our school’s trusty whiteboards to sketch out our ideas, and used that as a platform to discuss how we could further improve each design iteration.
What are the dimensions of Wheelson, and its weight? What materials are used to make it?
Wheelson is 61cm wide, and the height of the baskets is 35cm.
The main frame is made up of aluminium extrusions. The customized suspension system comprises steel springs and steel plates. The basket itself is made up of polycarbonate and plastic.
What do you intend to do with the prize money?
We have used part of the $3,400 prize money to modify some of Wheelson’s components. While the funds have been a great help, we equally hope that winning the James Dyson Award will help get more people to notice our invention, and to convince them that Wheelson is a solution worth investing in.
Are there serious plans to take Wheelson to the commercial market (perhaps upon graduation)?
Yes. For now, we are looking to get Wheelson patented and to make some further iterative improvements to the design.
Following that, we intend to tap into Dyson’s network of qualified engineers to advise us on how to make Wheelson market-ready. We appreciate that there are many considerations that junior engineers like ourselves may not be aware of, so we are very keen to learn from people who have that experience.
We are also thinking of kicking off conversations with manufacturers, just to get a sense of the requirements and the considerations.
Ideally, we’d like Singapore to be the testbed for Wheelson. Once we’ve found a way to make it work, we’d love to take it to the wider Southeast Asian region.
The International Winner of the 2019 James Dyson Award will be announced on 14 November. Find out more about Wheelson here.