Ground-breaking smart material takes pressure off wheelchair users

Posted on Monday 11th November 2013

Bryan and Subhash with their cushion

A revolutionary smart material product developed at the University of Bolton to support wheelchair users has been successfully brought to market and is about to go into its second phase of research development.

The Airospring cushion has been created after seven years of research and development by Professor Subhash Anand MBE of the University’s Institute for Materials Research and Innovation, retired Golborne Engineer, Bryan McArdle and Derbyshire company, Baltex Technical Textiles.

Now, thanks to a Technology Strategy Board grant, the research and development team has £500,000 research funding to develop new products using their unique technical textile, XD Spacer Fabrics made at Baltex.

Airospring is a pressure-relieving, moisture-wicking, breathable and fully machine washable cushion that has qualities which help prevent an unpleasant medical condition that can affect wheelchair users – pressure sores, also known as decubitus ulcers.

Sores form when people are stuck in one position for too long, which stretches the skin and cuts off the blood supply. Pressure sores cost the NHS £1.8-2.6bn a year.

The inspiration for Airospring’s development has been Bryan McArdle’s late wife, Sheila, who became a wheelchair user after a brain haemorrhage left her unable to walk.

Bryan says he was advised by Sheila’s nursing team to use lambs’ wool or fleece to cushion her body as it was a natural fibre that was breathable.

Although time-consuming to wash daily and maintain, the couple found it preferable to any manufactured cushioning they tried.

Bryan’s engineering background gave him the confidence to pursue developing superior products. Through a medical care conference contact he met Prof Anand who has developed medical textiles products for more than 30 years, including a number used within the NHS. Together they set about trying to develop an easy-care textile which would be as effective as the lambs’ wool Bryan was using to cushion Sheila.

Sheila sadly died in 2007, but the team continued to develop the material, initially funded through a £3000 innovation voucher from the then-North West Development Agency.

Said Bryan: ‘My wife died because she developed a pressure wound while in hospital. She never had any serious wounds in the 18 years I was her carer and that’s why I spent seven years researching and learning as much as possible about the subject. I really wanted to make a difference and I believe we’re at the cutting edge now. We have conducted significant, thorough research and development and I truly believe we are at the cutting edge. This is a significant achievement for the University of Bolton.

‘I’m now taking an active part on the Advanced Wound Care group, involving Leeds, York and Sheffield Universities. A five-year research project by this group has established that virtually all pressure relief aids used at the moment are not very effective. The design and technology applied to the Bolton cushions has the potential to change this for the better.’

Said Prof Anand: ‘There are a number of cushions on the market, but key attributes you would want in any material you sit on for long periods, are to be fully supportive, through distributing the pressure over a larger area of the person’s bottom and so reducing the overall pressure at any point.

‘Foam doesn’t support like our Airospring system does. And it is fully-machine washable and moisture-wicking, making it easy-care. Without a breathable cushion next to the body, which supports the wheelchair user properly, they can suffer pressure sores which can be an extremely unpleasant experience and potentially dangerous if they become infected.’

The light-weight Airospring cushion is now available in two thicknesses. There is the AS-100 model, which Prof Anand says is designed for people who sit for long periods, like drivers and office workers. He says the AS-200 model is designed for wheelchair users.

Radcliffe man, Peter James-Robinson MBE, has been trialling the AS-200 model and is delighted with the results. Peter, age 65, has been a wheelchair user since a brain abscess left him partially paralysed 17 years ago.

While he had to give up his business, running a small haulage company in the town, he refused to let his disability affect his active lifestyle.

A father of four with three grandchildren, Peter is on 16 different local committees for voluntary organisations in Bury and Radcliffe. He has two voluntary jobs, and is an Assistant District Governor for Rotary International as well as President of Radcliffe’s Probus Club. A keen fundraiser who has taken on wheelchair marathons for charity in the past, Peter was awarded his MBE for his charitable work in 2012.

Said Peter: ‘One of my voluntary jobs involves data entry so I’m sitting at a computer for long hours. I tried the original cushion, the AS-100 model, which was the first to be developed and it was good but it wasn’t really thick enough. The AS-200 is a huge improvement and I can work at a computer for hours without any discomfort.’

The cushion is sold by Airospring Medical Ltd, a subsidiary of Baltex at

Said Managing Director of Baltex, Charles Wood: ‘The TSB funding will help us look at a number of future developments for the Airospring cushion technology. Mattresses are an obvious product but we may be also looking at products such as insoles for shoes. Heel ulcers, for example, can be a huge issue for people with diabetes which experts think is likely to increase given our aging population.’


Notes to editors

The figure quoted of £1.8-2.6bn a year can be found in an article in the Nursing Times by Heidi Guy, a tissue viability clinical nurse specialist, East and North Hertfordshire Trust, and honorary lecturer, University of Hertfordshire.