After 22 years at Orthotec, you are taking early retirement. How has your time with us been?
No two days were the same in wheelchair engineering. It goes without saying that our day-to-day business includes scheduling appointments for services, repairs and new deliveries. However, unexpected things happen every day. If an electric wheelchair suddenly stops working, you can’t leave it until the following week. You need to find a solution within a useful period of time. My daily motivation was always to coordinate everything as smoothly as possible. It’s really nice that our customers show a great deal of appreciation for our work and that we can make an important contribution to their quality of life.
I am proud of everything we have achieved for wheelchair users over the years. Today, Orthotec is almost four times as big as it was when I started. We have a fantastic team with highly qualified people. The workshop is state of the art with lifting platforms, a material lift, and new machines and tools. I come from the beautiful canton of Nidwalden and in the local dialect I would say that it has been a “riese Fraid” (great pleasure) to lead this team.
Which patient stories do you remember in particular?
Oh, there are so many of them! From beautiful to sad and to funny. Once my shirt caught fire after a mishap with a gas burner. I was just extinguishing my shirt, trousers and even underpants when a group of visitors entered the workshop on a guided tour of the SPC. I hid behind my customer who shielded me from view with her electric wheelchair. Once the group had left, I was able to get myself some different clothes. The customers still laughs about it when she sees me today.
I have never asked, but many people have told me about why they are in a wheelchair. That was always moving. One man, who had survived a plane crush, told me what went through his head when he realised that the plane was about to crash. Those are extremely personal moments.
One highlight was when wheelchair athlete Edith Wolf-Hunkeler approached me with a particular challenge. Manifesta, a large exhibition of contemporary art, was in Zurich in 2016. Edith was asked to glide over the water of Lake Zurich in her wheelchair on a specially constructed platform. In order to make sure that she could move forwards despite the water and the swell, I used special rear wheels with integrated electric motors. The performance was a success and everyone was happy.
I will also never forget my talks with Silvano Beltrametti who had an accident during a ski race in Val d’Isère in 2001. He wanted to know everything about his wheelchair so that, if it came down to it, he would be able to repair it himself when he was no longer in Nottwil. I recently spent a night at the hotel he runs in Lenzerheide. Although his visits to the workshop were 20 years ago, he still remembers them clearly.
A new era is going to start in late January 2022. What will it look like?
I’m leaving with a good feeling. We’ve had plenty of time to prepare my successors. My job will now be shared between two people: Kevin Huber will take on the New Devices and Sports Devices group and Beat Pfister will take on the Service and Repairs group. Kurt Galliker, who has a great deal of experience, will continue to manage the third group: Specialised Construction. Beat and Kevin are young and dynamic people who have ideas and want to achieve something. I hope they enjoy their work as much as I did.
I drove the service car and dealt with flat tyres and maintenance work on the sports devices. I was profoundly impressed by the energy and motivation of the wheelchair users. The team spirit was incredible. I loved the close and friendly atmosphere. This mix of participants from French-, German- and Italian-speaking Switzerland was also enriching.
How many types of hand bikes are there?
There are almost as many categories as there are hand bikes, which are also called hand cycles.
A distinction can be made between two basic types: adaptive bikes that are coupled to the front of the wheelchair and fixed-frame hand bikes that are independent sports devices. Adaptive bikes can be conveniently parked after the tour and you can speed off in your wheelchair without delay. They are adapted for use on the road and expand the activity radius of wheelchair users.
Fixed-frame hand bikes include recumbent bikes, which have three wheels and are known as the racing bikes of hand bikes. They are designed for high speeds and long distances on the road.
At the same time, an increasing number of fixed-frame bikes are being developed for off-road use. With these mountain bike versions, the body position is more upright and in some cases even bent forwards. There are also different wheel configuration concepts.
Across all categories, there are hand bikes that are operated with or without electric assistance.
Another interesting type of hand bike is the one where not only the arms but also the legsmove.
As mechanic, what advice would you give hand bikers?
Firstly, pay attention to your brakes! Check them regularly and be aware of the braking distance you need. At Orthotec, we recommend an annual check-up. Secondly, check the air pressure and tyre profile. Thirdly, clean your hand bike regularly – preferably with a cloth rather than a high-pressure cleaner. And don't forget about your e-hand bike batteries in the winter!
Kevin, thank you very much for talking to us. (Interview: September 2021)
Deputy Managing Director / Head of Administration
Three questions for Renate Peter
Renate, you’ve worked for Orthotec for more than 20 years. Why has the company remained interesting to you for so long?
I’ve actually never been bored because Orthotec has always developed further – and so have I. Back then I started as an administrative team leader in the Rehabilitation Technology department, which today is the Daily Living Aids Sales department. Over the years, there have been minor and major reorganisation processes, stakeholder requirements changed, new EDP systems were introduced, digitisation happened, and so on. The growth and dynamics of the company meant that my tasks changed constantly, too. I love the variety and new challenges, which I why I have remained loyal to Orthotec for so long.
How do you see Orthotec today? Has anything changed compared to in the past?
Orthotec has grown considerably. What the company offers has become more varied, the products are more modern, our technical systems and processes are more efficient. The pressure to economise in health care has increased significantly, which we also notice in our cooperation with funding bodies. Despite the growth, I see Orthotec as a family-run business. Everyone knows each other and maintains social contact. Over recent years, a change in corporate culture has taken place and there is even more intensive mutual support, which fosters synergies. Employees are extremely interested in their work and are motivated to cooperate with the Swiss Paraplegic Group in order to support people with a spinal cord injury. Throughout their lives.
Everyone is talking about digitisation. What are the most important projects currently taking place in the Administration team at Orthotec?
We have been managing our archives and document flow digitally for two years now. We have been using direct electronic banking with the Swiss Accident Insurance Agency (SUVA) since 2016, and in the meantime also with the disability insurance and other accident insurance companies. There are occasional pitfalls, but many aspects are considerably quicker and more reliable. It would be good if we could also invoice health insurance companies this way, too, in order to take the pressure off our customers. However, the paying agent register number (ZSR) required for this remains reserved for medical institutions such as hospitals, doctors’ surgeries, pharmacies, etc.
We’re dealing with a large-scale project this year: Orthotec is introducing a new ERP system, i.e. software to support our business processes. We’re looking forward to this improvement, which will make our workflow even more customer-friendly. However the digital aspect is just one side of things. The human aspect is at least as important: a friendly hello at reception, a pleasant encounter, people feeling welcome and well looked after here.
Renate, thank you for talking to us. (Interview: February 2021)
Driving means something important – freedom (of movement)
Three questions for Kurt Stirnimann
Driving is an important topic in the rehabilitation process of a patient with a spinal cord injury. What part do you play in this?
Driving means something important to most people, namely freedom! Especially when you can drive the car yourself, whether to go shopping or to get to work, to meet with family and friends or simply to go out for a drive. Patients with a spinal cord injury go through a comprehensive rehabilitation process in the SPC. Here in Vehicle Adaptation at Orthotec, we perform assessments with the Occupational Therapy team to establish which technical adjustments are required to enable somebody to drive independently. This motorised transport assessment often gives people with a spinal cord injury a boost of motivation to engage with the next stage of therapy.
You’ve been part of our team since 1992. Which moments have been particularly moving for you?
There have been many of them. I’ll always remember one person with tetraplegia in particular. Due to his high level of paralysis, the doctors and therapists predicted that he wouldn’t be able to perform an independent transfer into a car. He didn't want to accept that. Together we adapted his vehicle. With a lot of adjustments and repeated small improvements, we reached a place where the patient could perform the transfer and load his wheelchair into the car himself. I was extremely touched by his willpower and perseverance. There have often been tricky tasks. For example, a street sweeper that we optimised in such a way that the customer with a spinal cord injury was able to get into the narrow cabin and resume his work in his local community. Another unusual task was to build dual controls into a Ferrari. The first customer I saw who was able to drive a car safely without arms made a lasting impression on me.
Do you have any tips for us from the field of vehicle adaptation?
We have a new range of reasonably priced estate cars with high roofs. They are worth looking at if you would like to transport one or several wheelchair users.
It’s not always necessary to go for a completely new adaptation. You may under certain circumstances find a suitablesecond-hand car on our marketplace. We also have rental cars for short-term use.
Many people are unaware of the fact that there are seating systems that can, for example, swivel the passenger seat out of the car. This makes it easier to get in and out of the car.
People who work in vehicle adaptation are always also inventors. Suitable solutions can be as different as people are different. People with paraplegia, people with tetraplegia, people who are particularly small or tall, people with limitations to their arms or legs: we can help a large number of people. That’s the beauty of our job.
Kurt, thank you for talking to us. (Interview: November 2020)
Wheelchair Sports Advisor and Wheelchair Sport Switzerland (RSS) Event Mechanic
Three questions for Pascal Schaffner, our specialist for wheelchair sports devices
Your first job was as a bicycle mechanic. How did you end up doing what you do today?
I first came to the SPC through my civilian service – and I never left! I was fascinated by the establishment and the people. When I was looking for a new challenge, I found a course to become a specialist in rehabilitation technology and established contact with Orthotec, which helped me gain the required specialist knowledge for the job. Later, when a position became available on the Advice team, the company contacted me. I didn't need to think about it ☺. There's also a short video about my career > Watch video
What happens if I’m a wheelchair user and interested in a sports device?
Normally, the interested party contacts Reception in person or by telephone and explains what he or she would like. If the person is after a sports device such as a racing wheelchair, rugby or basketball wheelchair, adaptive or recumbent bike, an appointment is made with me. At the first meeting, we discuss various options and models – in accordance with how specific (or still non-specific) the ideas are at this time. We place great value on the sports device not only looking great, but also actually fulfilling its purpose. An adaptive or recumbent bike should, for example, wherever possible, be tested somewhere with a comparable surface and comparable inclines to the surroundings it will be used in later. The situation here is ideal in that we can somehow get hold of almost any device or use a device that is already on campus in order to allow people to sit in it and try it out.
Do you have any product tips for recreational athletes or even for couch potatoes?
Of course! One new product, for example, is the HUSK-E adaptive bike by ProActiv. Equipped with a mid-engine, the bike's folding system allows it to be folded down to a practical size in just a few steps, which makes it easy to load into the vehicle.
Couch potatoes should simply try out a device and allow themselves to be convinced by how much fun exercise is: whether going on a bicycle tour again, joining in with a team sport, or getting out and mixing with people.
And a general tip: thinking ahead is important when acquiring a sports device. The devices are made to measure, which has an impact on delivery times. If I want to be ready for the start of the season, it’s best to start thinking about the equipment I'd like for the winter now.
Pascal, thank you for talking to us. (Interview: August 2020)
Change in the Board of Directors of Orthotec
Christian Biedermann hands over to Roger Suter
Christian, you did a lot for Orthotec.
How long were you a Member of our Board of Directors for?
I joined the Board of Directors of Orthotec AG in 2015. In 2016 I also took on the role of interim Managing Director. In 2017, I committed to take on the role of Chairman of the Board of Directors until the 2020 annual general meeting.
You set an end date for your time as Chairman of the Board of Directors from the outset. Why was that?
Exactly. On the condition that I was re-elected every year, I planned to step down in 2020 from the very beginning. The completely pragmatic and essential reason is without a doubt my advanced age. However, there are also fundamental considerations about how long a person should hold such a position for. The defined time period allowed me to set clear priorities and to create transparency for everyone involved from the very beginning. Due to the COVID-19 situation I extended my time in office by one month so that no unnecessary disorder was caused by the change in leadership.
Your commitment to the Swiss Paraplegic Group also comprised other aspects, didn't it?
That's right. From 2017 to 2018, I was a Member of the Board of Trustees of the Fondation Suisse pour les Téléthèses (FST) in Neuchâtel. I worked to integrate Active Communication into the Swiss Paraplegic Group and to establish the Innovation Centre for Assistive Technologies (IAT). I was able to accompany the IAT as a Member of the Advisory Board until the end of 2019 and I was a Member of the Board of Directors of Active Communication until the 2020 AGM.
What are you particularly proud of?
Proud isn't the right word. I simply did my job to the best of my abilities. I experienced a great deal of appreciation for that.
Please tell us about a few changes that you implemented and successful experiences that you had in your time in office.
In 2016, when I took on the role of interim Managing Director of Orthotec, it was important to establish a sense of calmness and confidence in the Management Board and the staff and to strengthen the perception of Orthotec internally and externally.
With Stefan Dürger, we were able to obtain a competent and active Managing Director for Orthotec.
We brought the Board of Directors, Management Board and staff closer together and were able to join forces to tackle the required reorganisation.
We overcame competitive situations on the market and instead developed cooperative partnerships that have created genuine customer benefits. An example of this can be seen in the Rollivision exhibition by Orthotec and the Swiss Handicap exhibition at Messe Luzern, which now take place every two years on an alternating basis. Instead of competing against each other, we now work together as partners.
We managed to handle the challenging changes to the Medical Device Regulation in a professional manner.
We were able to launch innovative products that created incredible added value for elite wheelchair athletes and for wheelchair users in day-to-day life.
You’re an active person, so is there something new you’re going to devote your time to now or are you looking forward to having more time for yourself?
First of all, I’m actually looking forward to having more time for myself, my family and my friends. Free weekends have been a bit of a luxury until now. I’m going to use the time to learn more about the digital world, which means that I’m going to go back to school to make sure that I “stay in touch”. Sport has always been important to me. I love sport and will start doing it more intensively. And it goes without saying that I’m going to travel more extensively again, preferably doing something that involves mountain bike tours in exotic countries. If I really find myself needing a new task, I’ll start driving a Tixi-Taxi. I like driving and mobility for people with a disability is important to me.
What would you like to pass on to Roger Suter as he starts his new position?
Definitely no helpful advice! The position is time-intensive and demanding, but also extremely satisfying as it’s a useful activity that benefits people with a spinal cord injury. Every new boss has the right to establish his or her own management style. In addition, Roger Suter has in-depth knowledge of the foundation. Those are the best preconditions for finding your feet quickly. I would like to wish him all the very best and every success in this position. As for me, my motto is “servir et disparâitre”.
Thank you, Christian, for the interesting conversation.
Thank you. One last thing: I'd like to thank everyone who supported me so fantastically during this time. The position of Chairman of the Board of Directors is not a one-man show. It requires a large number of committed colleagues for everything to work out. It was an honour for me to be able to work for Orthotec and the Swiss Paraplegic Foundation.
Roger Suter, you’re taking over as Christian Biedermann's successor. What motivates you about this task?
I’m delighted and proud to be able to continue with Christian Biedermann's work. I’ve been a Member of the Board of Directors of Orthotec since 2009. I’ve also worked as Head of the Innovation Centre for Assistive Technologies (IAT), coach of the national wheelchair rugby team, and peer counsellor for the Swiss Paraplegic Centre. As a wheelchair user, I know how important the provision of aids is for people with a spinal cord injury. For this reason, it will be important to me to ensure that wheelchair users continue to receive the best care in Nottwil, in line with the vision of our founder, Dr. Guido A. Zäch.
Christian and Roger, thank you for your commitment. We'd like to wish you all the best for the future.
Three questions for our orthopaedic shoemaker Dagobert Kaufmann
What motivated you to choose this unusual profession?
Back then it wasn't actually my dream job. Instead, I wanted to do something in graphic design. An acquaintance recommended orthopaedic shoemaking to me. I enjoyed my work experience, so when an apprenticeship became available, I signed the contract. It was only over time that I realised how interesting and varied my profession is. I have the privilege of working with people and can improve their quality of life. The variety of materials in my profession is also extensive and ranges from naturally tanned leather to polyurethane and carbon.
How can you help our customers?
I offer them a stable foundation again, whether with insoles or with special shoes. I often also adapt existing shoes, for example for people who use orthoses or prostheses, in order to ensure that there is space in the shoe again. Made-to-measure shoes are necessary for people who can no longer find ready-made shoes due to severe deformities or disorders.
What happens when you make a customised insole?
First of all, it is important to perform a detailed assessment of the patient. This involves looking at how the person moves and what he or she does in day-to-day life, because insoles don't have the same effect for everyone. Next I use a 3D scanner to take an impression of the foot. The insoles are then modelled using software and my experience, before they are cut from EVA plastic to the specified millimetre using the CNC machine.
Dagobert, thank you for talking to us.
New face in Marketing
Welcome to our team. You started working here in early August 2019.
How were your first weeks?
Incredibly exciting! And moving in every way. The team welcomed me with open arms. I went through a broad induction programme that helped me to understand the various areas of Orthotec, but also of the whole Swiss Paraplegic Group. From the very first day onwards, I became aware of how superficial my previous knowledge was about the world of people with a spinal cord injury. I’m impressed by how the most varied disciplines work together here to improve the present but also the future for people with a spinal cord injury.
What persuaded you to work for Orthotec?
A combination of factors led me here. I’d returned to Central Switzerland for family reasons and was open to new things. I’d known about the Swiss Paraplegic Centre for an extremely long time and had been a benefactor for a while. The position at Orthotec appealed to me because it was so varied. I like the professional and ambitious manner of working. What convinced me the most were the human factors: personal compassion, tangible passion for the work, and the certainty of being able to make a valuable contribution.
What are your goals in the field of Marketing?
To put it simply, to impart value. I'd like to show what Orthotec can achieve for people with a spinal cord injury and similar limitations. Familiarity, dialogue, and numerous satisfied customers – these are key dimensions. Our specialists work closely together, provide advice, combine and develop solutions for a joint goal, namely to create as much freedom of movement as possible for our customers. This message is important. And it’s also important that we stay in touch – through events, at exhibitions, on digital channels and in everything we do every single day.