The following article was first published in the January 2016 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:
On a small industrial estate at the edge of Ringmer is a company that proudly claims to produce the widest range of wheelchair platforms and recliners in the world. For example, they make a portable device that tilts a patient in a wheelchair, enabling that person to receive dental treatment without being transferred onto a dentist’s couch. And there are motorised chairs that’ll adjust to fit bariatric patients weighing over 50 stone, making it easier for medical staff to transfer and treat people on a single piece of equipment. It means undignified and potentially dangerous hoists can be confined to the past.
The company was born from a project at the University of Brighton. Richard Fletcher was leading the MSc Product Innovation and Design course when a London hospital asked for help designing a wheelchair recliner platform. Not only did Richard’s solution win an award, it led to the creation of his own business almost 16 years ago. He’s CEO of Design Specific Ltd, working with a dedicated staff of five who cover all technical aspects as well as marketing and support.
In its way, Design Specific is a very traditional firm. Every new product starts with a pencil-drawn sketch. Components are ordered from local suppliers where possible, with all assembly – including circuit boards – taking place on site. Yet the results are perfectly suited to 21st-century medicine. Instead of inconvenient cables and noisy motors, there are silky-smooth castors, rechargeable batteries and quiet hydraulic lifts. What’s most notable about the products is how attractive they are. “We like to make things that look good”, Richard explains. “You can have style as well as function.” Meanwhile John Walters, Design and International Marketing Manager, talks about a compliment he was paid at a European trade show. “The Germans said ‘It looks German’. That was high praise, as far as I was concerned.”
Last year, Design Specific won the coveted Award for Business Innovation during the Lewes District Business Awards. The company sells its products around the world, so why did it enter a local competition? “I don’t chase awards”, Richard tells us. “It was for everyone here. These guys work hard, they put a lot in. I wanted to give their efforts an airing.”
“Some people who look at our chairs wouldn’t say that’s innovation. I think it’s innovation because it’s a development of something that’s never existed before in that form.”
And what’s planned for 2016? Richard points to the motorised ‘fifth wheel’ hidden underneath their latest bariatric conveyance chair. At the moment it’s ordered from Germany but will soon be replaced with a home-grown design. “They use cams; we’ll be using linear drives. We’ve done a lot of sketches.”
Design Specific, Caburn Enterprise Park, The Broyle, Ringmer BN8 5NP