Design, disability and mass customisation: FIXED!

This post is also available in: Italiano

The relationship between technology and disability, particularly in recent times, has been the subject of great media attention, thanks also to the 2016 Rio Paralympics which offered many examples of how the courage and determination of competitors has enabled them to shape their own destiny. The popularity acquired by athletes like Bebe Vio has turned them into highly sought-after personalities, for instance, while the human and sporting achievements of the legendary Alex Zanardi were once again there for all to see.

amy purdy_kuka_robot_3d_disabilità

A moment destined to become part of the history of sport and perhaps of our time. During the opening ceremony of Rio 2016 at the Maracanã American snowboarder Amy Purdy danced a samba with robotic arm Kuka to the music of legendary Brazilian artist Sergio Mendes. The relationship between man and technology is expressed through the harmonious energy of the dance. A positive vision of a connection that is destined to become a genuine union. As an aside, Amy Purdy’s dress was entirely 3D printed by Israeli fashion designer Danit Peleg using a “straightforward” WITBOX FDM 3D desktop printer and a series of FilaFlex flexible filaments.  (credits Associated Press).


The sci-fi world of Asimov and his Three Laws of Robotics project us towards a future in which man and technology join forces and complement each other, our bodies strengthened with robotic parts, our interaction guaranteed by an information system that connects our brains with artificial peripheral devices. A journey into the imagination with ideas that have been transformed into authentic classics of the world of literature, comics and film. The Cyber theme has produced stories like the manga series Ghost in The Shell written by Japanese Masamune Shirow, which has inspired incredibly successful films and anime adaptations, prompting Paramount to produce a live action film that will star Scarlett Johansson.

Sci-fi is, by definition, fiction, but its visionary power has always been a strong source of inspiration when it comes to innovation.

ghost in the shell 3d cyber disabilità

One of the first posters released by Paramount to promote Ghost in The Shell depicts Scarlett Johansson undergoing… maintenance. Scarlett plays Major, leader of the legendary Section 9 and main protagonist of the fantasy sci-fi adventure created by Japanese Masamune Shirow. The setting is a futuristic and hyper-technological Tokyo where humans have robotic parts and artificial intelligence is accessible to practically everyone. The film is set to be released in Italy in spring 2017. (credits Paramount Pictures)

The vision of the future offered by science fiction has inspired lots of scientific research, which is now able to produce very encouraging results.  One obvious example is the HAL exoskeleton produced by Japanese company Cyberdyne. The concept is simple: to overcome paraplegia by bypassing spinal cord injuries with a system that uses the skin as a vector between cerebral impulses and the bionic legs of the device. A goal that is possible thanks to the wide use of 3D technologies, from the design of the mechanical parts to the complex sensory systems that underpin the functioning of the exoskeletons.


Image taken from a demonstration held in 2009 by Cyberdyne on the streets of Tokyo. HAL is certified according to ISO 13482, the first global standard for personal care robots. Published in 2014, the standard still has lots of limitations and greatly restricts the commercial use of these devices. (Credits AFP PHOTO / FILES / Yoshikazu TSUNO)

These intriguing solutions pave the way towards a concrete and attainable goal but are still some way off becoming mainstream due to the technology, which is still quite immature, the haphazard regulatory framework and the cost, which remains prohibitive for mere mortals. The models currently on the market range from €40,000 to €140,000; currently HAL is hired exclusively to hospital and medical facilities from €1500 a month and is not available to private parties.

As such, exoskeletons represent a very interesting technology but are not yet in a position to replace the traditional wheelchair on a large scale.


By putting innovation and technology into effect, the future promises to provide a solution to a radical problem by combating disabilities with their nemesis: strengthening, that extra factor which makes up for the things that are missing. One day physical and sensory disabilities may simply be seen as “manufacturing” defects which can be repaired by replacing the parts that don’t work. An evolution that involves the creation of a new form of ethical consciousness. Only this scenario can stop disabilities from being seen as a form of diversity.

If this is the future how far away is the present?

Who said that diversity has to be a limitation? Is it not possible to think of diversity as a positive thing, also in the collective imagination? The unexpected media success of the Paralympics was certainly not down to the times run or the level of the sporting performances witnessed. The quality of competition in Paralympic disciplines certainly cannot be compared with that in regular Olympic events. It has something more. There was an intrinsic positivity in the endeavours of those athletes. A genuine array of success stories, driven by the spirit encapsulated in the wonderful words of Alex Zanardi: “I just stumbled into a new life“.

alex zanardi bmw ag

According to some studies, Alex Zanardi is now Italy’s biggest sporting icon, ahead of stars of the calibre of Valentino Rossi and Federica Pellegrini. An unbelievable turn of events for a man regarded as a fairly “ordinary” driver until his tragic accident in 2001 (credits BMW AG).

The sporting world has often produced solutions and technologies that have become an integral part of everyday life, not just for those training for the Olympics but also for those that seek to do normal things on a daily basis: study, work, have fun, play sport, have an active social life. You don’t necessarily have to be an Ironman finisher with an infinite collection of World and Olympic medals like Alex Zanardi to enjoy a positive relationship with your disability.

Aided by an ability to set personal goals and an incredible will to succeed, nowadays any differently-abled person can transform their disability from a limitation into a resource. Different, yes, but the embodiment of positive diversity.


Broaching the issue from the point of view of the designer, the question to ask is the following: how is it possible to make technology accessible today to overcome disabilities?

Making technology available is a revolution that begins from the bottom, from the founding principles of design in their purest form: guaranteeing solutions to improve man’s condition. A philosophy at the root of a concept and, before this, a modus operandi based on premises that do not consist of overcoming a negative condition but of making a positive outcome possible.

This is what Turin designer Danilo Ragona seeks to achieve with his innovative start-up Able to Enjoy.


Danilo Ragona on the premises of his company Able to Enjoy, which conceives, produces and markets solutions for disabilities (credits Ornella Orlandini, Millionaire)

Danilo has undergone training and acquired active experience in the area of designing and providing consultancy on disability solutions. Able to Enjoy was founded with the goal of going beyond the medical approach typical of the wheelchairs on the market, the majority of which are ugly and inflexible to the needs of individuals, proposing a concept based on the custom design of genuinely multifunctional objects that are able to adapt to different situations with the help of a range of specially designed accessories.

To get an idea of how much Danilo Ragona puts into his business activities watch the trailer for Viaggio Italia, a project in which he and his friend Luca Paiardi sought to launch a charitable and active awareness-raising initiative around the issue of the independence of disabled people.

Danilo is now a highly respected influencer in the sector. In 2011 his multifunctional B-Free wheelchair received an honourable mention at the Compasso d’Oro, the most famous design award in the world. In a recent interview with daily newspaper La Stampa Danilo expressed the concept that summarises the mission of Able to Enjoy in design terms: “If we can’t overcome physical barriers, we have to try and remove social barriers. A wheelchair is something we wear, like a pair of shoes or a prosthetic limb. It must be attractive and functional, something to show off, no longer something to endure.

The most recent Able to Enjoy solution, FIXED, is exactly this.

Translating the vision of Danilo Ragona into reality requires an innovative approach that is consistent with the traits and philosophy that drive him. FIXED is the product of a complex multi-disciplinary approach that took shape thanks to the synergic contribution of many 3D technologies.

To find out how FIXED was developed stay tuned to 3D Stories. All will be revealed soon.


This post is also available in: Italiano

Related Articles

About author View all posts Author website

Francesco La Trofa

Architect and journalist with 20 years’ experience in 3D technologies.
Consultant to public entities and 3D businesses for aspects relating to design and communications.
Head of editorial content at and co-founder of Digital Drawing Days, the only event of its kind in Italy.
Actively involved in research and teaching at Milan Polytechnic.
Edits 3D STORIES for Protocube Reply.