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Apprentices showcase innovations to help disabled athletes

apprentice innovation challenge - handbike
Last week, six teams of apprentices from Barrow, Glascoed, Rochester, Scotstoun and Warton unit demonstrated devices designed and built for this year's Apprentice Innovation Challenge to a team of judges at the Royal Academy of Engineering's premises in London.

The Apprentice Innovation Challenge was set by the Help for Heroes and Royal British Legion charities and required apprentices to design and manufacture equipment in order to solve one of two problems to assist disabled athletes. The teams were also judged on their project management abilities, application of life-cycle-management and teamwork.

Help for Heroes set the task of designing a new, comfortable, lightweight and affordable hand bike and The Royal British Legion required a postural support for sailors with spinal cord injuries.

Nigel Whitehead, Group Managing Director, who began his career as an apprentice and attended the event said: “I have a real passion for the apprenticeship scheme at BAE Systems as I firmly believe that apprenticeships and workshops stand young people in good stead in their future careers. The Apprentice Innovation Challenge encourages our apprentices to showcase their talent and develop a multitude of critical skills that are highly valued in the workplace, from project management to technical skills and teamwork”.

The six teams and their entries;
Barrow Team, Hand Bike

Two teams of apprentices entered the Challenge from the Submarines business in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria.

The first team - ‘Breaking Cycles’ was led by Zoe King. They chose to improve the safety of hand-bikes for users in response to the brief set by Help for Heroes. The nine-strong team visited one of the charity’s Recovery Centres at Tedworth House in Wiltshire and tried out hand-bikes for themselves, to identify what aspects of the equipment they could improve.

Their final product involved installing a system on the hand-bike that allowed users to operate both sets of brakes from one handle. Loose cables became a very real safety concern for users at high speeds, either obscuring vision or even being prone to hitting users in the face, and this system consolidates the cables to one side of the bike as well as securing them in a way that does not affect performance.

Zoe said: “Getting to try out the hand-bikes for ourselves really helped us appreciate the brief set, and also understand where we could look to benefit athletes during the challenge. The team’s usual roles range from drilling to electricals on submarines, so this kind of work was a big challenge to get our heads around at first, but all the more rewarding as a result.”

Barrow Team, Sailability

The second team from Barrow, was led by Yasmin Readett and created an attachment for the existing Aquabac sailing seat to meet the challenge set by the Royal British Legion. The team designed three different prototypes of a base for their project, refining their ideas with each version. Their final showcase product was a stationary frame with a seat that used plastic runners over coated aluminium to allow it to slide, keeping the sailor in a vertical position. The base is also capable of tilting, harnessing the user’s own body weight to keep them horizontal as the boat pitches.

Having created the larger parts of their product out of wood as it was a readily available material, the team are excited to continue refining their design in future, saying that – dependant on cost – the seat could even be manufactured for end-users out of light-weight carbon fibre.

Yasmin said: “None of our team had ever been out on a boat before, so this was entirely new territory for us! The Apprentice Innovation Challenge was a great experience for the team, both as a new challenge and a chance to help out these great charities, and we’d be keen to keep improving our product in future.”

 Glascoed Team, Sailability

Apprentices from the Munitions business based in Glascoed, Wales, tackled the brief from the Royal British Legion to design a self-levelling attachment for the Aquabac seat for Service personnel suffering from spinal injuries, allowing them access to sailing.

To meet the brief, the Glascoed team’s final design uses a novel tilt mechanism which is capable of moving independently, allowing the user to remain sitting upright with minimal effort. The seat is also able to move from side-to-side to mimic the motion of the vessel on water via a system of three rollers. The product includes a perfectly fitted base and matching colour scheme and a quick-release safety mechanism at the rear. 

Team leader Gavin Anstee-Dance said: “This was an exciting challenge for the team as it is very different from the work we do on a day-to-day basis. It was a great opportunity to apply our skills to a new area and have the opportunity to showcase our talents internally within BAE Systems. If possible, we’d be keen to progress with the design and trial the product with Service personnel to receive direct feedback so we can make improvements to our existing prototype.”

Rochester Team, Sailability

The team from the Electronic Systems business in Rochester, Kent also responded to the brief from The Royal British Legion to create a solution for sailors with little or no lower body movement. The team designed a self-levelling seat that would allow users to keep the top half of their body in an upright position whilst seated in a sailing vessel.

The team’s seat operates on a counter-weight system which responds to the movement of the vessel, and ensures that the user would remain level in the roughest conditions. 

The team of five electrical apprentices found the project to be an unusual but enjoyable challenge, entirely different from their day to day work.

Team leader Kelly Hannah said: “It was a real challenge for the team to work on a project that didn’t include a single electrical component and it was a great opportunity for us to apply our engineering skills to a new project like this. We have created a solution that serves as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ seat with no sides or edges, as we would like the chair to be accessible to all those helped by the Battle Back Centre and the Royal British Legion.”

Scotstoun Team, Sailability

Apprentices from our shipbuilding business based on the Clyde in Scotstoun, Glasgow, set about designing a self-levelling platform for the Aquabac seat. Led by team leader Daryl McCay, the final design uses a static frame and a system of mechanical pulleys to counteract the pitching movement experienced at sea. The finished device is similar to a swing within a static frame, ensuring the user remains stable and level – even in rough waters.

Although team leader Daryl McCay and his six fellow apprentices are used to working on engineering challenges posed by much larger ships, they felt a natural affinity with the challenge as it related to being operational on the water.

Daryl said: “Applying our engineering expertise to this project was a unique challenge and one that’s very different from the work we do day to day. It was a great opportunity for us to showcase our talents internally within BAE Systems, and – even more rewarding – was knowing that something we devised could potentially be used to improve the lives of those helped by the Royal British Legion.”

Warton Team, Hand Bike

The joint team from the military aircraft businesses at Samlesbury and Warton in Lancashire set out to answer the Help for Heroes brief by designing a new piece of hand-bike equipment that would combat current design shortfalls and frequent brake failures common with hand-bikes. First the team used Facebook to establish the most frequent complaints about hand-bikes from users, before engineering a new anti-twist Gyro mechanism which would house the brake cable and stop it from twisting and breaking.

Extensive testing has shown the brake cables to be unbreakable after 500 miles use, when used with the new Gyro. This is a significant improvement on the normal life of a hand-bike brake cable which is normally around 90 miles. The team also designed a new rotary handle which rotates and allows the user to reposition their hands to avoid muscle fatigue on longer rides. Both products use innovative Additive Layer Manufacturing – or 3D printing – in their construction.

Team leader Alex Griffiths said: “We picked the hand-bike challenge as we felt we knew more about bikes than boats! It’s been so rewarding to take part in the Apprentice Innovation Challenge. Applying our expertise to a totally different aspect of engineering to what we normally work on has built the confidence of the entire team and we feel passionate about the finished products we have engineered. Our hope is that through the partnership BAE Systems has with elite sport agency UK Sport, these devices may end up being used by Paralympic hand-bike athletes in the future.”