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Award-winning Innovations from PhD Vehicle Design Alumni

PhD alumni from the Vehicle Design programme achieve success in a range of fields, with impact beyond what would traditionally be thought of as vehicle design. Dr David Swann, who was awarded a PhD from the Royal College of Art Vehicle Design programme in 2011, has recently designed a simple device to aid the dilution of bleach by healthcare workers treating Ebola. Other Vehicle Design PhD candidates, including Dr Luke Harmer, have produced new ways of utilising research and approaches to designing for experience.

The most recent of Swann’s growing inventory of low-cost, innovative designs for healthcare, a plastic gauge that indicates the correct amount of bleach to add to a bucket of water, is currently undergoing review by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for inclusion in their forthcoming 2015 Compendium of Medical Devices for Low Resource Settings. Last year, his design for A Behaviour Changing Syringe (ABCs) won the World Design Impact Award, and was shortlisted for the Products category of the Design Museum’s Design of the Year award. 

It is estimated by the WHO that up to 40 per cent of the 40 billion injections administered each year are delivered with syringes reused without sterilisation, contributing to the spread of blood-borne infections such as hepatitis and HIV. Although an auto-disable syringe, which locks upon full delivery of injections, is predominantly used for immunization programmes, due to its higher cost it is not used for a large proportion of curative injections in the developing world. The ABCs is designed to tackle this problem by cheaply and efficiently making the invisible risk of cross contamination visible. 

The barrel of ABCs is impregnated with an ink that turns scarlet on exposure to carbon dioxide, indicating that it has been used. Each ABCs is individually packaged in a nitrogen-filled wrapper that ensures the syringe remains colourless before use. Within 60 seconds the irreversible colour transformation takes place, alerting users if the syringe has been out of its sterile packaging for too long. The ABCs was tested in India, where the warning colour proved to be 100 per cent effective, with both literate and illiterate adults and children being able to correctly identify the red syringe as dangerous.

The simplicity of the ABCs is characteristic of David’s approach to design. An outcome from his research at the RCA was the 21st Century Clinician’s Bag, which is designed for use by healthcare workers delivering treatment in patients’ homes. Frequently clinicians use kit bags that have not been designed primarily for a healthcare context, such as camera bags or toolboxes. Nominated for the 2011 INDEX award, the 21st Century Clinician’s Bag is entirely fit for purpose. It is formed from one single injection moulding, reducing joints and creases that are hard to clean, and avoiding absorbent fabrics that can harbour bacteria. It also folds out to form a dedicated, sanitary work area for the clinician to use in the patient’s home.

While at the RCA, Swann was part of Smart Pods, a two-year research project focusing on the delivery of urgent healthcare, an outcome of which was a redesign of the Emergency Ambulance. Of his involvement in this project, David, who is currently reader in Design at Huddersfield University, said, ‘Being part of the Smart Pods research team was really significant to me. The exposure to interdisciplinary research, evidence-based design approaches and dissemination strategies was invaluable. Being part of a team rather than a solo PhD was a perfect fit for me.’

Luke Harmer, who was awarded his PhD in 2010, developed ‘Experience Sections’, a new visual tool through which to approach vehicle design within the context of the modern city. Harmer investigated the role design research plays in forming a better understanding of the interactions, perspectives and perceptions all streetscape users have of public buses, considering cyclists, pedestrians and drivers of other vehicles, as well as bus passengers. 

Harmer explains that while his research at the RCA focused on public transport, ‘...it has since developed into a strategy for user experience that can be utilised in a range of design applications: vehicle, product, service, architecture.’ 

This holistic and user-centred approach underpins Harmer’s design practice, for which he has found a range of applications including the development of a 34-person electric vehicle for touring the Harrison Caves attraction in Barbados and the design of a one-off luxury interior for a VIP train for the rail freight company EWS. Harmer is currently a senior lecturer and course leader of BSc Product Design at Nottingham Trent University, where he has found his PhD experience at the RCA invaluable in helping students to design and conduct their own research.

More information about Dr Swann's designs can be found here.