Designs for living

If Chas A Blatchford, a family-run business, was operating in a more fashionable field than artificial limbs it would no doubt be a household name, writes Roger Trapp.

Founded just over a century ago in London, the company now operates from Hampshire and supplies about a third of the 45,000 amputees in Britain. Along the way it has collected a sackful of design and export awards and about half its pounds 20m turnover comes from overseas.

According to Saeed Zahedi, the design group leader, this performance stems in large part from Blatchford's product advances. Until it started using carbon fibre composite materials in the 1970s, artificial limbs had progressed very little from the hooks and wooden legs worn by the ship's captains and pirates of legend. Now users, who include participants in the Para-Olympics, have limbs that much more accurately copy the flexibility and movement of arms and legs.

Similarly, Innovative Technologies has managed to break new ground in wound dressings. Keith Gilding, who founded the company five years ago, says the firm challenges the conventional thinking that wounds heal best when they are regularly checked and cleaned.

Using specialist plastics, the organisation, which has grown from six employees to 150, has devised a range of "intelligent" dressings that respond to the state of the wound. The effect, says Dr Gilding, is that wounds need to be dressed less often and patients can be sent home from hospital earlier.

"Our approach demands, first, that a need be identified (whether for a product, process, raw material or communication) and, second, that design be incorporated into all aspects of development, product and utilisation," explains Dr Gilding, a polymer chemist who has helped set up two other companies in the healthcare sector.

Innovative Technologies has developed a series of products that perform better than existing ones, are cheaper and can be disposed of in an environmentally- friendly way. It sells them through such well-known names as 3M and Smiths Industries.

Blatchford's and Innovative Technologies are among the five British entries for the European Design Prize, which is being awarded in Paris on 31 January. These are the first from Britain to be nominated since the competition was set up 12 years ago as a joint initiative between the European Union and the individual states' design promotion agencies. The other entries are JCB excavators, Dyson vacuum cleaners and Psion personal organisers.

The five British firms, which all aim to show how design is integral to every business function, will be pitted against 55 companies employing between 250 and 1,500 people.