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Assistive Technology Transfer Update

 

Title: Hats off to the lidsoff
Author: T2RERC
Published: 2003
Publication: Assistive Technology Transfer Update: Vol. 5 Issue 1 (Spring)

The Black & Decker Corporation built its business reputation manufacturing electric tools and related hardware. They have since diversified into product applications such as household appliances. In 1998, Black & Decker (B&D) approached Yale University with an offer to fund student design projects, based on B&D's internally generated ideas for new household products. In return, Yale would assign intellectual property rights for promising inventions to B&D. Yale University accepted the offer and encouraged student design teams to participate. In 1999, a Yale student named Jen Davis chose the B&D design topic of an automatic jar opener. The completed "Twistmaster" worked well enough for her to submit the prototype device to the BF Goodrich Collegiate Inventors Competition. The BF Goodrich Collegiate Inventors Competition is an international competition designed to encourage college students active in science, engineering, mathematics, technology, and creative invention, while stimulating their problem-solving abilities. Ms. Davis' won the competition.

Black & Decker acquired ownership of the Twistmaster in late 1999, because the inventor had successfully captured the topic's objective. The prototype was designed to be accessible to people of all dexterity and strength levels, and to work with a wide range of jar and lid sizes. The general population – especially women — constituted the primary market because of difficulty in opening jars, particularly lids on vacuumed sealed jars. Secondary markets included the elderly, people with physical disabilities and children.

The T2RERC routinely follows the results of national invention competitions, to find any assistive technology prototypes requiring commercialization assistance. We knew there was a significant unmet need in the marketplace for an automated jar opener. The RERC on Technology for Children with Orthopaedic Impairments had specifically expressed the need. We saw the device described in an announcement of the BF Goodrich Collegiate Inventors Competition Award winners in early 2000. We contacted Jen Davis and explained our program. She replied that B&D now owned the intellectual property rights, but she was not sure if they were pursuing a patent and product development. We contacted B&D to establish their intentions, since we were willing to shop the product to other manufacturers if they were not willing to pursue it internally.

Black & Decker confirmed their interest in the prototype. However, they had several reservations about continuing development. First, the prototype product didn't demonstrate all of the needed functionality. Second, they thought the potential market was undefined and difficult to define. Third, they had not fully validated a need for this product. Was there a need, who constituted their target market, and would people buy and use the product?

Given the T2RERC's interest in this need, and B&D's capacity to meet the need, we offered to provide supporting information to answer these questions. Our search for competing products revealed only partial solutions in the marketplace, and one newly patented invention that did not match B&D's vision for their product. We also clearly defined and quantified the secondary markets, which turned out to be far larger than B&D had originally estimated.

To establish the product's need we convened a consumer panel in May 2000. Group composition depends entirely on the product's intended markets, so a product with primary and secondary markets requires consumer participants representing a wide range of demographics and functional abilities. Given our mission to bring new and useful products to the market for people with disabilities, we ensure our groups include people with disabilities. Due to issues of confidentiality and accommodations for people with disabilities, the RERC relies on the WNY Independent Living Project Inc., to recruit consumers and host all panels and focus groups. We have jointly developed the facilities to host meetings, capture the content, and permit two-way teleconferencing during and after the sessions.

For this consumer panel, the participants rated their satisfaction with current options for opening jars (very low) and their interest in having a home appliance that actually worked (very high). In the process, the consumer panel critiqued several prototype models, each offering various mechanisms, features and aesthetics. Their comments formed the consumer evaluation within our Commercialization Package, which also included our technical assessment and market information. Our report concluded that the device had substantial commercial potential, given its ability to open a variety of jars with little effort from users. There were no existing products that both gripped the jar and twisted the lid, and those features received an overwhelmingly positive response. We saw an opportunity for this product to capture a large segment of the projected market. We hoped the documentation and our conclusions would convince B&D decision-makers of the need and market for a universally-designed home appliance.

In October 2000, Black & Decker announced their decision to establish an internal design and development team for the Automated Jar Opener. They started the design process from scratch rather than building off of existing prototypes, to avoid constraining the design team. Over the next several months, they mocked-up several different models, each representing a different approach to opening jars. To support their efforts, the RERC ran several Concept Definition Focus Groups in February 2001. These first round groups – known as Alpha Groups – involve potential product consumers representing the various expected market segments. Through a facilitator, they define the range of features and functions required in a product, establish priorities among these requirements, and then converge on an "ideal product" incorporating the full range of desired attributes.

Black and Decker thought the RERC's approach offered a new perspective. Their internal primary market research had established the need, identified price points and estimated purchase intent, much as ours do. However, they had not previously pushed to identify the ideal product characteristics. Their personnel observed these focus groups remotely, and received audio/video tapes of the sessions for future reference. The groups generated a total of twenty-nine specific features and functions for the "ideal" automated jar opener, and B&D witnessed the rationale evolve for each one during the groups. Their design team internalized the results and spent the next six months refining their internal design of a product prototype.

Once the prototype was completed, Black and Decker's design team prepared to present it for internal corporate review. The T2RERC suggested holding a second round of focus groups – Beta Groups – to assess how closely the prototype matched the consumers' ideal product. Beta groups can critique how the design team implemented suggestions, help refine the product's appearance, and re-examine the rank order of desired features and functions now that they have been reduced to practice. The Beta groups provide quantitative assessments of the qualitative information from the Alpha groups, to either guide further refinements or validate that the design achieves the ideal consumers envisioned.

In October 2001, B&D sent their revised model back to the T2RERC for Beta focus group evaluation. The Beta groups each involved seventeen potential consumers, consisting of a mix of the general population, the elderly and people with disabilities. The Beta groups discovered that the revised device incorporated twenty-seven of the twenty-nine recommended features. Black & Decker's design team had taken the consumer input very seriously. The participants ranked the importance of the previously identified functions and design features and assessed how well the prototype incorporated those features and functions. They evaluated three product models, each representing a different approach to incorporating the features and functions. The Beta groups also made the final selections for six specific design features: overall shape, button location, button size, button shape, type of handle, and type of lock/unlock activator.

The Beta focus group results provided Black and Decker with useful additional information. They followed consumer input in the six design features, and chose their final product version based on consumer feedback. The production version received approval in the Spring 2002. The ‘Lids Off' automatic jar opener is scheduled for commercial introduction in Spring 2003.

This example shows how a major corporation can design a product to address a mass-market need, while also accommodating the needs of potential customers in niche markets. The T2RERC thought the device met the needs of people with disabilities, but knew that most companies viewed these markets as too small to target with products. Although this view is changing (see Appliance Manufacturing, November 2001), major companies are still searching for products that address general population needs. We knew that pushing a design for people with disabilities would unfairly limit the product's perceived value to B&D decision-makers. Instead of presenting a completed design, the T2RERC provided features and functions representing the next generation of product accessibility for all potential users. We left the actual incorporation of the features and functions to the internal design team, since they knew best the requirements for materials, components and production.

This approach enabled the B&D internal design team to view the RERC as a resource rather than as a competing source of expertise. Rather than spending time critiquing an outside design, the internal design team had full latitude to accept or reject the consumer recommendations. To their credit, they recognized that our consumer groups were designed to represent U.S. general demographics, while also representing the full range of functional limitations present in potential user groups in their correct percentages. The needs of the general population and the limitations of the elderly and disabled were well represented in the results from the Alpha and Beta groups. By accommodating those limitations in the product's design, Black and Decker increased the likelihood of successful operation and satisfaction by all future consumers. The product's success in the marketplace will be the final test of this approach. Strong sales of the ‘Lids Off' will increase corporate interest in product designs that include the broadest range of users – including people with disabilities and the elderly.

The Automated Jar Opener is an electrically operated, household kitchen appliance designed to assist all individuals with the task of opening jars. The device, the size of a standard countertop coffee maker, utilizes a motor driven gear system and a lid-engaging unit to break the vacuum seal on a jar and unscrew the jar lid. The design is unique in that it features a minimal effort approach to opening jars. The Automated Jar Opener is designed to significantly reduce the amount of effort expended by all consumers especially children, disabled individuals, and the elderly.

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