Custom building is all very well and good, but of what practical use is it?

I was at a show just recently having a cup of coffee with a company rep I’d known for years when he asked me, “So what’s the point of custom building your trikes then, Bob, is it just a bit of marketing at the end of the day?”  I thought, “Hmmm… If someone in the industry doesn’t understand why we do it, why should our customers?  It’s time you got your blog pen out!”

However, the more I thought about our conversation, the more it reminded me of a story I’d like to share with you, as it’s a good story and it epitomises why we custom build our trikes.

I was very fortunate to have a college lecturer who brought engineering to life for me, by telling stories of the times and challenges of the great pioneers.  One of my favourites was about Thomas Edison, who patented the first “Incandescent lamp”, better known to us as the light bulb.

Edison was a prolific inventor but his “Incandescent lamp” was nearly his Waterloo!  The great Victorian pioneers like Nicola Tesla had already invented batteries, transformers, capacitors, motors and dynamos but by the late 19th century; electric light still eluded them all.  Edison tried over two hundred materials as filaments for his lamp, including plant fibre and human hair! but all burnt out too quickly – even within Swan’s oxygen-free vacuum.  Edison finally solved the problem with a new metal called tungsten and without further ado, arranged a demonstration to the great engineers and scientists of the day at the Royal Society in London.

The gas mantles were dimmed, the switches were thrown, and as the rheostat turned, Edison’s Incandescent lamp slowly came to life, softly illuminating the stage about him in a dim yellow glow to polite applause from the auditorium.  When the gas was turned up once more, questions were invited from the audience, and one eminent but sceptical scientist remarked…

“Mr Edison, your Incandescent lamp is all very well and good, sir, but of what practical use is it?”

Edison looked up at him from the stage and said patiently, “Sir – what use is a newborn child?”  

I loved the irony of that story, and though Tomcat’s small achievements cannot hold a candle to the global impact of electric light – at a human level I feel Tomcat has much to be proud of, and all due to custom building in my opinion, so let me explain what that policy has achieved over the last twenty years.

Before I invented Carer Control for my son Tom, choosing a trike for someone with special needs was a little like going to a dentist who could only offer four sizes of pre-made choppers!

Fortunately, no dentists work this way, but what a shame about the special needs trike industry!  I believe – and I’m sure you will agree – that those of us with disabilities are every bit as unique as teeth!

Tom couldn’t ride what I considered to be the best trike of its day (based on weight – please check our “Weighty problem” blog) at that time because it made no provision whatsoever for his learning difficulties.

Without the ability to steer, brake or judge danger, how could he possibly succeed?  However, when I designed and fitted Carer Control to that very same trike, he was able to cycle for miles in complete safety.

I learnt through Tom’s failure, followed by his success, that it is never the riders fault but always the technology. Please take that thought with you through this blog!

One memory that sticks in my mind from those pioneering days was taking Tom on a day out to Westonbirt Arboretum, where they had an exhibition of chainsaw art in progress.  There were thousands of people there, and the air was full of wood chips, chainsaw smoke, noise and quite possibly body parts, but Tom cycled through it all, happy and smiling, and perfectly safe.  Can you imagine taking a childlike Tom to a chainsaw event on foot!

As Tomcat grew, and more innovation came along, I quickly realised that disabled kids are like snowflakes, each one different and each with their own unique and often complex set of challenges to deal with.

I’d learnt from Tom that by expecting them to adapt to a generic solution – even one with a few bells and whistles – that failure is a very real possibility, but by creating a solution unique to them, I found that they could achieve so very much more – not just the rider themselves, but the whole family too, as witnessed by our day out at Westonbirt.

In the early days, I found a great friend in Dame Ruth Linguard of Fledglings who sent me an army of children, each with a different problem to solve – or challenges as she liked to call it!   Each needed something special to solve their difficulties and there were some head-scratchers amongst them; but by applying a couple of simple principles, I was able to devise a solution that the off the shelf companies could not offer.

My first principle with any new challenge is that there is no point thinking of the human body as a mysterious miracle of nature (which it undoubtedly is) because by thinking that way, you immediately acquiesce into thinking “Oh that’s just them!  That’s just their disability doing that”.  That is when you give up and get nowhere.

Instead, I prefer to think of them as a mechanical machine where joints are pivots, muscles are hydraulic pistons and their brain is a power control module.  Believe it or not, we have parallels for most parts of the human body in engineering, and by considering their abilities and difficulties through an engineer’s eyes, I can better understand how they function and what their potential may be.  I like to call their physical and mental capability their “biological machine” and when I have a measure of it in simple engineering terms, I can then begin to work with it.

My second principle is more straightforward and obvious!  When you understand the “biological machine” you can begin to design the “mechanical machine” – in this case, a Tomcat tricycle – to work in harmony with it, but you can’t do that if the product is already built!  It makes good sense, therefore, to build the trike after you have assessed their abilities and difficulties – not before!

Because all options are open to us as custom builders, it gives assessors the opportunity to problem solve in a way that is not available to manufacturers or suppliers of imported or off the shelf products.

The inflexible nature of any pre-made product puts what I think is an unfair burden of responsibility on the customer to make the right choice in complex circumstances.  I also believe that if you make a product you should be its expert in every way, and take responsibility for making the right choices in the form of a guarantee that the end result will work as Tomcat always has done.

Hopefully, I have explained the fundamentals of custom building and why it has given Tomcat the status in our industry that it enjoys, but you may have noticed that it does not explain the link with Thomas Edison’s “Incandescent lamp” or indeed why we won the Queens Award for Innovation.

When it became known that Tomcat would take on difficult challenges, parents and schools began to send all manner of tricky problems our way from riding, breathing and feeding issues to safety, access, and family and social integration issues.  Some were “one-off” issues for that particular child, like a little girl so plantar flexed that she walked on permanent tip-toes like a ballerina.  We made the special foot-supports that enabled her to cycle and have never needed to make anything like it again, but many of the problems we solved had a useful potential for many more children and became very popular as a result.

Good examples are Tomcat’s Quick Release system that makes transportation so easy, or Carer Control™, or Trailer Trike™ or Dual Axle™ or Swivel Saddle™ to name but a few of our portfolio of over forty innovations.  Over the years, Tomcat has produced almost all of the industry’s current innovation through our willingness to take on difficult challenges.

Inevitably with any good idea, there will be copies, some good, some bad, and I know of very few manufacturers in the UK, Europe and the developed world who have not adopted Carer Control (or Rear Steering as it is often called), in some form or another and this is where I liken custom building to Edison’s new-born child.

I am very proud to have achieved this global impact because Carer Control and so many of its stablemates have empowered thousands of children and families all over the world to leave the safety of their homes and gardens and enjoy the world outside their door.  Surely that is what all innovation should be about – to improve the quality of life.

It was therefore with some satisfaction, that when we returned to my friends stand I was able to point down to the rear steering of the imported trike his company were selling and tell him that without custom building – “you wouldn’t be selling that!”

Finally, I would like to show you a solution we produced very recently for a mum in Newcastle, who had 8-year-old twins – both with CP.  Both wanted to cycle, but with dad away on an oil rig for six-week stints at a time, it was very difficult for the family to leave the house.  When mum asked us for help we produced the solution in the picture where she either walks or cycles in front of the two boys on their Tomcat trikes, which are linked together like elephants holding one another’s tails (inspired by the Land Train on Weston Pier).  I doubt we will ever do this again, but it was a lot of fun to design and it has brought a lot of pleasure to a deserving family.

Perhaps I should end this blog with a thank you to the charity whose trust in us on a project without precedent made those children’s dreams come true!