11 | DIC | 2019
Mexican creates eco-friendly cardboard crutches
Mexican industrial designer Rafael Riego – Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL

Mexican creates eco-friendly cardboard crutches

Mexico City
Cynthia Villalón
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Rafael Riego designed this low-cost orthopedic appliances hoping his invention can be used by those who need it the most

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Rafael Riego, excited, puts his arms over a couple of cardboard crutches and shows that, although they are made of a material one would think is fragile, they support his weight and could support even more.

His life has changed in the last month because the invention he has in his hands made him won the third place of the James Dyson Award. However, the biggest impact happened when more and more people knew about his project and looked for him to offer him support or to buy his product.

“Now I feel the responsibility of taking this to the market as soon as possible. I already have a responsibility to fulfill,” explains the Mexican inventor. Although this is not the first time Rafael, who is an industrial designer by the Anáhuac University, develops paper inventions: since he was a child, he says, he felt interested in building things with his own hands using whichever materials he had available.

When he was little, he built toys with wood, but the first time he felt excited to experiment with paper was when, while he was still in elementary school, his mother gave him an origami book as a present; since then, he has not stopped creating things with that material.

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Besides his crutches, Rafael created a startup called Paper Alliance, in which he started creating works of art in paper; however, he wants to engage in useful products for people, especially the poor. The name of the project is Accessible Mobility Orthopedics – also called Amob – and it has faced skepticism from people.

“They don’t believe me at first. If I tell them about it, they think it is a weak paper crutch, but once they see it, they get excited for it to be available for people. That is the most important.”

The cost of an accident
When Rafael was studying his major, he had four ankle sprains in a row. His accidents made him use crutches for over a month which, in addition to being uncomfortable, forced him to buy conventional aluminum orthopedic appliances. “I noticed that their price is high for most of the population. Buying a pair of crutches to use them one, two weeks, or four months, is impossible for many,” explains Riego.

The price range of a pair of common crutches goes from MXN $300 to $3,000. Aluminum is the most common material, although there are also wooden ones which are slightly cheaper.
In contrast, Amob crutches cost approximately MXN $40 which could even go lower making some changes in the material.

The designer says that he was able to buy conventional crutches, but asserts to be aware that this expense is not affordable for everyone. Therefore, the objective of his invention is for it to be accessible for practically all the population and for it to offer characteristics orthopedic appliances do not have, such as being light, recyclable, and easy to transport.

In addition, Riego’s crutches can be adjusted to the size of the patient and can become a cane with just a couple of movements.

In Mexico, over 5 million people live with some kind of disability and motor disability is the most common, according to the Pediatric Rehabilitation Unit of the National Rehabilitation Institute.

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An alternative to aluminum
Six years ago, Izhar Gafni, an Israeli designer created a completely functional cardboard bicycle whose cost was USD $10. In this way, he promoted this kind of transportation while using recyclable materials. Riego liked this design for being eco-friendly.

The perks of cardboard, compared to the aluminum used to elaborate most crutches and bicycles, is that it degrades faster.

Since it is made of cellulose, this material can degrade in a year, although its degradation time depends on factors like the environment and added materials.

On the other hand, aluminum can take up to 10 years to disappear and once it does it will go back to its iron oxide form, which can be harmful to human health.

In addition, it usually contains paints to preserve the material, which increases its toxicity, besides the great amount of water needed for the degradation process to take place.

According to Greenpeace, wood is the most ecologic renewable resource. The use of products made from sustainable wood, such as cardboard or cork, can be cheaper and less polluting than the production of aluminum or iron.

Designs made from cardboard are compactable; that is, they can be put away easily, and once their useful lifetime has ended they can be reused or disposed of without causing environmental impact for more than a decade.

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The future of the project
To get to the actual model, the young designer started to observe how people walk, in addition to taking inspiration from models that already existed in order to create a new one. He tested different kinds of cardboard for over a month and elaborated at least 30 different prototypes, of which only four or five survive; the final model has all the strength he needed. The development of the project was carried out in secret, no one knew about it until he made the final crutches.

“I started to think, as though it was a school project, which was the most feasible format. I started with cardboard, but I noticed I needed something more, and then I remembered I love origami. I started to do research on materials and found this kind of cardboard, it is a tubular profile and it has worked perfectly from the first crutch,” he says.

Hence, what started as a project he had thought of since he was in college and that he continued developing during his free time, took him to compete in an international design competition.

Rafael decided to participate in the James Dyson Award after Marco Arba Bermuda, a classmate, was one of the runner-ups last year.

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This award is an international design competition organized by the James Dyson Foundation. It has taken place for over 15 years in 31 countries, among which are the United Kingdom, Germany, the U.S., Korea, and Singapore. Since 2018, this contest is held in Mexico and started to receive proposals.

The objective of this award is to motivate young engineers and designers to develop projects and inventions that solve daily problems and the runner-ups receive an economic prize of MXN $48 thousand to continue with the development of their projects.

After winning the third place, Rafael Riego is thinking of options for making Amob grow. Once the third stage has been successful, he wants to commercialize it as soon as possible.

Among his ideas are offering jobs to people with visual disabilities for them to build the crutches once he develops a small factory.

Until now, he has received proposals from different persons and companies, from paper factories to businessmen interested in supporting his project.

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“It could be made without problems by setting up a simple assembly line. I already verified that the costs can be reduced and that the crutches work,” explains Rafael.

“I’m still having conversations with investors; several proposals are coming from cardboard factories here in Mexico. The opportunity of developing this product and taking it to the market is closer each time. I’m excited because they are getting in touch with me to develop other kinds of things and because of the interest in this project.”

Rafael has continued creating things: In addition to the crutches, among his other inventions are glasses or wallets made from folded paper.

In the following months, he will release a line of wooden earphones made by himself – with the help of his friend Rodrigo – called “Doble R” (Double R).

In the meantime, Rafael is excited to think that an idea he had when he was still a student will now be available for those who need it the most.

“The possibility of this becoming something marketable is amazing. I had no idea of how to convey this product, nor did I have the means nor channels, but now I’m very happy that people know about it and give me their opinion.”

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