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Aug 11 2023

Ottobock can, even on busy days, repair anything

This Friday morning, a proverbial alarm bell went off in the Ottobock workshop in Ahoy. Now that the wheelchair basketball tournament has also begun at the European Para Championships, the technicians at the manufacturer of wheelchairs, prostheses and orthoses, among other things, will undoubtedly be even busier. Because with the many collisions on the basketball court, anything can really get broken. And that means work to do.

André Müller and Andrea Cremer welcome us to the Athlete’s Home with open arms. Ottobock has a large, multifunctional booth and workshop there. In two fully equipped containers, they have everything they need to repair damaged tires, frames and prosthetics. Moreover, the company, which has 9000 employees (!) in 60 countries worldwide, brought a mobile workshop to Rotterdam. The first week it was at the tennis courts of TV Victoria and will now move to Schouwburgplein (for the tennis and boccia finals) and then be used for cycling.

An average of a dozen tires were replaced per day at wheelchair tennis. By the way, these are very specific tires, as the wheelchair wheels are at a special angle on the court. And that brings more wear in some places. “We’ve already ordered additional tires.’’

Ottobock is with a total of 32 employees in Rotterdam. “Not all at once, mind you, but there are 8 technicians continuously available”, André Müller knows. “We are also using this event to introduce people who have not been with us for so long to what it entails to work during a parasport tournament. That requires a lot of flexibility and creativity from our people.” Normally they are busy with material development and repair of ‘normal’ wheelchairs and prosthetics, now very specific rush jobs come in between all day long. “There is no standard job among them’’, Müller says. Cremer: “That brings a special vibe.”

Since the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul, Ottobock has been present at most of the major parasports events. Most recently, the crew was active at the World Para Athletics Championships in Paris, and after the European Para Championships, athletes will be supported at the Invictus Games in Düsseldorf. Cremer: “Sport has become our passion.” While it is true that the company serves literally millions of wheelchair and artificial leg users, the spontaneous meetings with as well as questions from top athletes keep Ottobock employees extra sharp. “If they leave again with a smile, or sometimes even a broad smile, we are happy. We absolutely realize that you want to perform at a European Championship, so you can’t have any malfunctions with your equipment.”

This week has already seen a lot of tinkering. For example, a desperate participant came with a wheelchair that had been trapped and badly damaged during air transport. And not by much. The entire frame was bent. It was not easy to find a solution; bending it back a little didn’t work anyway. Eventually the grinder had to be used. One of the tubes was sawed through, then welded and ground with combined efforts. The result was impressive. The athlete in question could use his competition chair again.

Anything can be made. Aluminum, titanium, steel, stainless steel, but also carbon. “Although some jobs require much more time than others. That’s also why there are spare seats.” For one participant who – possibly for budgetary reasons – was in a competition wheelchair that, while functioning well, was not the right size, adjustments were made. “That will definitely save her during the competitions.”

There are also less drastic chores. For example, really dozens of tires are inflated each day. Müller: “You can imagine how important it is that the tires of your wheelchair are at the right pressure. And not only those of your competition chair, but also those of your regular wheelchair. Because if you have to push hard all day, it still costs you strength that you may lack on the field.”

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