DDSTUDIO uses Onshape to design customized wheelchairs for dogs

DDSTUDIO, a San Diego-based industrial design firm, recently created a customized wheelchair for Andre the Giant, a dog with severe rheumatoid arthritis. The company also designed the ROVA, a sleek, high-tech walker to assist disabled people.


Industry: Product Development


Industry: Product Development


Our product development manager came over to a bunch of us engineers and said, ‘Guys, I found the future!’ And we’ve been excited about Onshape ever since.

Blake Wang, DDSTUDIO

Andre, a disabled pet in San Diego, California, tests out an early wheelchair prototype to support his weak front legs.

When DDSTUDIO program manager Bill Leach first met “Andre the Giant” five years ago, he was active and energetic like his professional wrestler namesake. Frequently, the 10-pound chiweenie dog – half chihuahua and half wiener (dachshund) – could be found jumping around on the couch.

Andre came into the marriage with Leach’s wife, Sarah. Over the years, rheumatoid arthritis caused severe damage in the dog’s front legs, making it extremely painful to walk. Looking for a way to restore some of his pet’s mobility, Leach purchased a dog wheelchair on the Internet, but found that the manufacturer’s smallest model was too big.

"The generic kit that I ordered online only comes in three sizes with little room for adjustment. I liken the problem to how they sell ski boots,” he says. “There are just two different sizes of the hardshell, but they have a soft liner to fill in for all the smaller sizes. With the boots, you can get a very custom fit."

Frustrated by the lack of commercial options, he turned to co-worker Blake Wang, a design engineer, to help him build a chiweenie-friendly wheelchair from scratch. The San Diego-based industrial design firm, which includes "making a positive difference in the world" as part of its mission statement, recently created the ROVA, a sleek, high-tech walker to assist disabled people.

Exploring Multiple Designs

To design their custom-fit pet wheelchair, Wang and Leach chose Onshape, a new full-cloud 3D CAD system that lets everyone on a design team simultaneously work together using a web browser, phone or tablet. Onshape was recommended by their boss at DDSTUDIO.

"Our product development manager, Julian Groeli, came over to a bunch of us engineers and said, ‘Guys, I found the future!’ And we’ve been excited about Onshape ever since. We were looking for ways to give it a real tryout," says Wang.

DDSTUDIO is making their prototypes with a MakerBot 3D printer and testing them out with Andre in Leach’s kitchen. So far the wheelchair has traversed linoleum and carpet, but future versions will be made more rugged to be used outdoors.

DDSTUDIO’s "Doggy Walker" Wheelchair Model in Onshape.

"There’s a learning curve for both us and the dog,” says Wang. “We’ve tried placing the straps in different places and experimented with how different wheel placement affects his balance. He’s now able to move in multiple directions – the original wheelchair we bought could only go forward and backward – and we’re exploring if a smaller or thinner wheel will help us better replicate his natural movement."

"One of the things that I love about Onshape is that I can go down one road with a design, and then take another road, and merge the best of the two designs together," Wang says, referring to Onshape's Branching and Merging feature.

A Better Approach to Version Control

Wang says one of the biggest advantages of Onshape is that everyone on a design team works together on the same master CAD data at the same time, eliminating the risk of overwriting each other’s work.

"Let’s say I want to work on one section of an assembly and there’s another engineer who wants to work on another section, and then there’s a designer who wants to control the master file to make sure his curves are curvy enough. In that case, we all have to communicate constantly to make sure we have the right version of everything," he says. "We don’t want to waste time by working on the wrong version – which would force us to choose whose work we get to keep and whose we don’t."

"Onshape eliminates that whole hassle. We don’t have to save copies each time and fill up our hard drive with different versions or worry about consistent naming conventions every time."

Wang adds that he also finds Onshape to be an invaluable tool for keeping his clients updated on a project’s progress. "We just send them a link and they can spin the model around themselves and see what we’re up to," he says. "That’s something that a 2D screenshot can’t ever come close to capturing."

Clients and partners have full and free access to Onshape models in their web browsers – with no licenses or software downloads required. Onshape also features a unique "Follow Mode" that allows designers to change aspects of a model in real time with the client’s input.

Inspired by Assistive Technologies

The growing availability of 3D printers has allowed pet owners and veterinarians to invent a variety of clever devices to improve mobility for disabled animals. Some celebrated examples include a piglet wheelchair, a LEGO wheelchair for a disabled turtle, and a set of wheels for a paralyzed alpaca.

"I have an emotional connection to this project," Wang reveals. "Assistive technologies in general are on the forefront of my attention because I’m actually legally blind. My computer screen is super-magnified and I also use a special software program to invert the brightness and colors so I can see the contrast better."

Industrial designer Blake Wang, who is legally blind, uses a special software to increase the contrast on his CAD models.

What's the Market for a Doggy Wheelchair?

For now, DDSTUDIO is focused on getting their prototype for Andre just right, but Leach says he could envision offering engineering services for other pet owners if there is significant demand.

San Diego’s Sarah and Bill Leach with "Andre the Giant."

"The challenge is similar to fitting a prosthetic limb – the first one you get will be somewhat crude, but you need to see if it fits and works and you improve from there," he says. "Dentistry works the same way with starting out with something temporary and then getting the perfect fit with a final crown. Onshape provides the perfect environment for this type of real-time design iteration."

"I think it would be cool to whip up a database with the measurements for all breeds and sizes of dogs as a starting point. It would be great if other people didn’t have to start from scratch with this," he adds.

Meanwhile, Andre the Giant has a lot of young fans rooting for him. "My wife Arabella is a kindergarten teacher and during engineering week in the California schools, we did a video chat with them about what it’s like to be a mechanical engineer,"" Wang says. "I used Onshape to demonstrate my design iteration on the doggy walker and the kids loved it!"

While they continue to make modifications to their design, Wang and Leach have tempered expectations about the device’s immediate impact.

"Just to give him a little bit of mobility back is really cool," Leach says. "Because he really can’t do too much, every little step is meaningful."

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