Winner of the 2015 Machinery Innovator of the Year Award, Andrew Stubbs, tells Geoff Ashcroft how he created a bespoke mobility system for a paralysed contractor.
Wanting to help a North Wales contractor get back into the cab following a car accident which left him with severe paralysis, Andrew Stubbs combined his skills as a farmer and an engineer to design and build a hydraulic chair lift system to fit a tractor.
And it was an almost chance conversation with friend and Valtra dealer John Bownes, which kick-started his engineering adventure.
Andrew says: “We were travelling together to the launch of Valtra’s T-series tractors when John mentioned a customer of his, Matt Evans, who was paralysed from the chest down. “As I have a disability of my own, I knew how even the simplest of tasks could be quite demanding to overcome.”
Matt was looking to get back to work, but needed a solution to help him get back into the seat.
And John Bownes’ experience of Andrew Stubbs’ engineering ability was enough to throw down the gauntlet. Based at Astle Farm East, Chelford, Cheshire, Andrew has been welding, fabricating and creating on-farm engineering solutions for the last 30 years.
He says: “I saw Matt’s requirement initially as a welding job for a guy who needed to drive his tractor. So I turned online to see what others had done, only to find mediocre solutions using cranes and winches.
“These contraptions were not very user-friendly. They were awkward and I felt confident I could make something much better suited to what Matt needed. I believed I could build a mechanism which would appear to be part of the tractor.”
With the idea mostly in his head, and fuelled by others who told him it could not be done, Andrew based his idea around a 12-volt hydraulic lift, which could be integrated into the tractor.
He says: “I wanted to use simple, straight-forward components based on standard off-the-shelf parts. This would simplify maintenance and keep the cost of any repairs low.
“Using a mast with a double acting hydraulic ram enabled us to lift Matt from wheelchair height to cab height. We used nylon wear plates and avoided grease to keep the mast as simple and durable as possible.
“The bigger challenge came from moving Matt from the outer side of the chair lift around to the inner side so he could negotiate the cab doorway and get onto the passenger seat.
I spent hours scratching my head, when one night I was staring at an angle-poise lamp and its linkage – there was my answer. I needed a double-hinge.
“This would let Matt vary the arc in which the chair could slew, making it more practical for positioning himself close to the passenger seat.”
Using a steel seat for the chair lift has several benefits. Its slippery surface makes it easy for Matt to slide across it, supplementing his limited upper body strength.
It also folds vertically so it can be stowed neatly within the tractor’s width, against the steps. A cloth wipes it clean and dry when wet.
Andrew says: “The whole unit is a bolt-on construction, so Matt’s tractor can be returned to standard when the time comes to trade in.
And because the mast sits behind the tractor’s air cleaner, in line with the cab’s A-post, it does not block any of Matt’s visibility from the seat.”
Check valves, safety chains and a seatbelt add to the safety of the chair lift mechanism.
With support from Royal and Sun Alliance’s insurance engineer Geoff Butters, the outfit has been rigorously tested, CE marked and backed up with a dossier of paperwork to verify the legality and practicality of such a device.
It also meets lifting operations and lifting equipment regulations.
The 10-week project cost about £10,000 and is a bespoke engineering solution which also comes with its own operator manual.
Andrew says: “I am immensely proud of everyone who helped shape this project into the lifechanging device it has become.”
Andrew says helping Matt get back to work has also helped him.
“I do not think I could have done it had I not developed skills to overcome my disability.”
The seat intergrates neatly onto Matt's T144
In little over 12 months, North Wales owner-operator Matt Evans has clocked up more than 1,600 hours in his Valtra T144 tractor, as he provides contract services for local farmers around his base at Bodfari, Flintshire.
It is not unusual, you might think, for a hard-working contractor to spend long hours in the cab, but it is deeply impressive given Matt is paralysed from the chest down following a car accident.
The 32-year-old’s passion and determination to get back in the seat and continue to run the contracting business he started in 2005 is remarkable.
He admits it would not have happened quite so easily or effectively without Andrew’s engineering skills.
Matt says: “The chair lift has given me freedom to go back to work and do what I love – contracting. I can slide from my wheelchair onto the chair lift, raise myself and swing into the doorway, then pull myself across the passenger seat and into the driving seat.
“I then fold the lift away, lock it with a pin and lower it to the transport position. It is my freedom.”
In an area populated by John Deeres, he says the Valtra is a tractor which gets him noticed.
Matt says: “I had a Valtra 153 before my accident, and I have replaced it with the T144 Direct.”
He also has a T144 Active on the fleet, which is used by Gethin Williams, who kept the business going while Matt spent months in hospital.
Matt says: “I had a lot of time to think about how I could get back into the cab.”
He says he has to be careful where he parks the tractor.
“The chair lift’s mast extends higher than the top of the cab roof when fully raised, so low buildings are tricky.
“I also have to park on level ground or the chair lift’s double hinge will swing downhill, making it harder to get into or out of the cab.”
Supported by a fantastic group of friends and family – many of whom work with Matt – he says there is plenty of help at hand when it comes to opening and closing field gates and hitching implements on and off.
He says: “There is little which cannot be solved with a mobile phone.”
With hand-operated levers bolted to the tractor’s pedals, and a continuously variable transmission controller at his fingertips, Matt has since spent many hours on a clamp with a front-mounted push-off buckrake, plus mowing, tedding and raking, as he works alongside other contractors in the area. Matt and Gethin carry out a lot of hedgecutting through winter, although ploughing remains Matt’s favourite task.
He says: “I have to plan how I approach any task. I am not ready to sit at home watching daytime TV. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and Andrew’s chair lift has provided me with a way.”