Priming the New Product Pump
"We constantly refresh our pool of ideas. Our end users are very vocal about what works and doesn’t work."
- By Jerry Laws
- Jan 01, 2010
Introducing new products to the safety market is an expensive, time-consuming process in which customers’ feedback is critical. Capital Safety – North American Product Manager Nate Bohmbach, who helped to bring the company’s new ExoFit NEX™ fall harness to market recently, discussed how his company develops new fall protection products in the following Nov. 23 conversation with OH&S Editor Jerry Laws.
OH&S: Your company continuously brings out new products and improvements to existing products. This must be a core value in your culture.
Nate Bohmbach: Yes, it is. We put a lot of resources and a lot of time into our new product development. We have the benefit of being the only global company that is 100 percent dedicated to fall protection. So that helps us quite a bit. A lot of our key initiatives, year after year, continue to be behind new product development.
That must influence your hiring – the kinds of people that do well at the company and that you bring in fresh out of school?
Bohmbach: Our HR department would be able to answer that question a little bit better. From a creativity standpoint, we are always looking for people with solutions to different problems out in the field, as well the ability to interact with our customer base really well because that’s where we get a lot of our ideas.
Just recently at the 2009 National Safety Congress, you brought out a new fall harness, the ExoFit NEX. It has many improvements on its predecessor, which had come out a decade before. The original was a very successful product, wasn’t it?
Bohmbach: Definitely. It kind of brought the full-body harness to a whole different level. It was the first real comfort harness on the market at the time. Since then, a lot of manufacturers have followed in suit.
Will you please describe the process of deciding to develop a new version of it. If you’d done so well with it, and it was in use for a decade, why go about making it so much better?
Bohmbach: That’s a great question. Nine out of 10 of our new product ideas come from our end users, if not 10 out of 10. It’s really been a lot of time spent in the field, listening to end users and taking a look at the issues they have when using personal protective equipment. Overall productivity is usually the key there. Really, when we came out with that first ExoFit harness, it had a lot to do with comfort: Getting the user to wear it, wear it correctly, having adjustments, quick and easy donning, things like that.
So now we have this great product out in the field; how can we make something that’s considered the best right now even better? So we spend time with our users, take down notes, and figure out what even they may not be able to realize is a hindrance. And then we take that back to our engineers and develop things to continue to make the best better -- continue to take things like function, and durability, and overall comfort to the next level. New technologies in webbing, materials, and things like that help us with that, as well. A lot of very hard work went into developing the ExoFit NEX, but that's the short version.
Do you have a formal process for asking end users for their feedback? Do your field staffers visit construction sites all over the country and simply ask them? Do you have focus groups?
Bohmbach: We don't really have a formal process. We have a lot of sales reps across the country. A light bulb might go off in somebody’s head that they can pass along to us back here at our home base in Red Wing [Minn.] And then we travel out to that location, sit with that end user in their environment, to see how they’re experiencing the product and how it’s working or not working in that environment. That gives us a better idea to come up with a solution.
We do sometimes bring users back here and have focus groups at our training center, and we also try to get samples into our users' hands to see how they're used in real-life situations.
Do you get intelligence of that sort from overseas? Some PPE markets develop faster overseas; I’m thinking of wind power, which I believe developed earlier in other countries than it did in the United States. Do you learn about hazards and new markets all over the world?
Bohmbach: Definitely. Another key initiative of ours is to continue to globalize the company and have our strategies aligned wherever they can be. These ideas can come from all parts of the world. We have offices in Singapore; Sydney; and Nice, France.
An industry application may be more commonly used in a different part of the world, but that can carry over into a solution used here at home, or vice versa. We continue to work with our partners across the globe to develop common solutions to global problems.
How often do you work on a new product that never makes it to market?
Bohmbach: All the time. We have a pool of new product ideas that we can pull from, and these ideas all come from our end users. We may pull one out of the pool and take it to a certain point in the process, then realize it's not feasible at that point or it just doesn’t make sense to continue forward. In that case, it either gets put back into the pool or cut altogether. Then we may pull another idea from that pool.
We constantly refresh our pool of ideas. Our end users are very vocal about what works and doesn't work. So we're never short on great ideas and concepts for new products.
Are there differences between how you develop a new product for the U.S./North American market and for other markets? Asia, for example, or wherever it might be?
Bohmbach: Overall, when we talk about the structure of our development process, it kind of follows the same pattern everywhere. But different things work better in some parts of the world. You always have to keep in mind governing standards, government regulations, things that may present some hurdles when you talk about other parts of the world.
You take it through the different channels in other parts of the world. It may seem like a great idea from a North American viewpoint, but when you take it elsewhere, such as Asia, it may not work for that environment or may have to comply with a different standard in, say, Australia. Overall, looking at it from a satellite view, the process is the same. But for different regions of the world, you may have to tweak it, or you choose not to present it in some parts of the world.
You've discussed how users' feedback spurs new products. A new consensus or mandatory standard obviously is a trigger for introducing a new product; what other factors trigger the decision to start one?
Bohmbach: The safety of workers is obviously our primary focus and starting point. A number of factors feed this focus. Feedback from end users is obviously number one. You also mentioned something coming down from a standards body. Other triggers include a new industry or a new safety focus on an end-user level.
Take wind, for example. Ten years ago, wind power was hardly mentioned around the globe – or very little, anyway. Say a new technology like that comes out, somebody has to work out equipment to support that technology. We’re thinking, how can we protect the person who needs to go up and do a job hundreds of feet in the air on a turbine? Some new industries require an overall paradigm shift in the way things are done.
Right. And industries are evolving. Wind turbines are evolving to taller and larger structures, I believe. So the hazards may change.
Bohmbach: Exactly. If the industry itself shifts or changes in one way or another, then the people providing support in products and services for that particular industry will have to try to shift, as well.
How long did it take from the time you decided you were going to come up with a new version of the original until you got the NEX product to market?
Bohmbach: It’s been in development for some time. The first talk of developing this next generation of harness came probably 15 months ago. That’s when the investigation, the ideation phase started. That’s when we started really listening hard to what’s working and what’s not working. And because the ExoFit was considered the best that was out there, we really had to spend a lot of time with the feasibility investigation stages listening to end users. And then the development of each component on the harness added up to a lot of time.
Is all of that – developing, testing, sometimes certifying the product -- expensive?
Bohmbach: Yes, it can definitely add up, especially when you figure in total man-hours in design, prototypes, component selection, intellectual property considerations, field testing, certification, and fabrication. The certification component alone is a big thing.
Are you often making changes in a product’s design right up to the end?
Bohmbach: Definitely. A big thing is as we get samples out into the field and have them tested and used in real-life situations. That’s where you can have to take a different angle on something, which can add to the time and cost schedule. That happens all the time.
How many new products with Capital Safety have you worked on?
Bohmbach: Have I worked on? Personally, I’ve been here almost three years now and have worked on about a dozen new product projects during that time, with the ExoFit NEX being the biggest of them.
Are there “old hands,” mentors, who help to lead the development process and help newcomers to the company with this effort?
Bohmbach: There are definitely a few people around here who’ve been here since the dawn of time who really have done magnificent things for the industry and our company as a whole. To throw out some names, Tom Wolner, who’s our vice president of engineering, he sits on a lot of the standards bodies. He’s been here for 25-plus years. Craig Firl, another great resource and technical specialist.
There’s definitely a lot of people with a lot of knowledge of the industry who have taken this company where it is.
We’re talking soon after the announcement of the NEX product. Is there anything currently in your product pipeline on which you’ve worked as hard as on that one?
Bohmbach: There are definitely quite a few projects in the pipeline. A lot of it’s confidential right now. We’re constantly working on completely new products, as well as thinking of ways to make our current products even better.
There are a few projects that are pretty game-changing that are in the pipeline right now that could be as big as the ExoFit NEX, but that’s as much as I can say right now.
How close are some of them to making it to market?
Bohmbach: I don’t know whether we’ll have anything out by the end of the calendar year, but I’ll say early in 2010, you’ll see the latest and greatest things from Capital Safety.
Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.