When it comes to tools, how many times have you just accepted what was available? And how many times have you taken that tool, be it a wrench, something for the garden, office equipment or otherwise, to the task and realized that even though it might be the best option on the market, something about it just isn’t right? The size is wrong, the shape could be better, if the grip were wider or padded, it might be more comfortable to use. . .
There are all sorts of ways to do the job that needs to be done, even when the tool isn’t quite perfect, but getting a tool that fits the task, the user and the environment is one of the primary tenets of ergonomics. So what could possibly be more ergonomic than a design crafted by and for a user of a product, particularly when that user has become fed up with the “off-the-rack” options? Absolutely nothing, except maybe the products these users create themselves.
Dr. William Kropa needed a new chair. And hip replacement surgery.
As a dentist for over a quarter of a century, he sat to do his work, bending over patients, and adopting what he sees now as problematic posture. With surgery impending, he wanted to get into a better physical condition, and he wanted to be comfortable at work.
“I tried a lot of things,” Kropa told The Ergonomics ReportTM. But for one reason or another, chairs that existed on the market for his field of work weren’t right, and his options as a dentist were running out fast. “If I couldn’t come up with a comfortable way to sit, I was going to have to do something else [for a living],” Kropa said.
Enter necessity, the mother of invention: Kropa designed his own chair, one that fit him, the tasks that he needed to accomplish while seated, and that helped him get the exercise in his legs that he needed both before and after his surgery.
“I couldn’t find a stool that was comfortable . . . all the chairs that are on the market now are all passive chairs, designed to relax, to put muscles in a relaxed state,” he said. “But it’s not natural [to sit in chair like that] for eight-to-10 hours a day.”
Why design it himself? “It was kind of an act of desperation,” Kropa said. “I tried different things, and some didn’t work, so I came up with this design.”
The design Kropa conjured up is an adjustable chair with an abdominal support rather than a back rest, optional foot extensions and pads that can be used for resistance for Kropa’s feet and legs to allow him to either stretch or strengthen various leg muscles while working. The seat pan angles to encourage Kropa to maintain a comfortable and natural working posture, providing him with workable movement, yet keeping him from having to reposition a patient’s head at the same time. And the chair also allows him to perform isometric exercises throughout the day rather than waiting until he’s through work at a time when he’s tired and possibly more prone to injury.
Foregoing an off-the-rack model wasn’t a completely foreign concept to Kropa, whose father, an inventor of sorts, had a number of patents in different fields. But the chair itself marked the first time that Kropa decided to create his own solution.
“It’s kind of bizarre looking,” Kropa said, but looks aren’t everything. The incarnation of the chair that he currently uses is made up of materials he had around the house including street hockey blades and other unconventional parts that he fashioned together in his own workshop, a.k.a. his garage. But it fits Kropa and his work perfectly — he’s been happily and comfortably using the chair since 1999, two years prior to his surgery.
While Kropa’s model might seem like a hodgepodge of parts and ideas, he has had an architect put together a model of the chair that is a little more like what he initially envisioned as a manufactured chair, and he’s working towards patenting the design, just in case he ever decides to take the chair public. But creating a marketable chair was never really Kropa’s intent – creating a workable tool for himself was. Now, with his own creation, Kropa couldn’t be more pleased. “I can rest in an ergonomically sound position,” he said. “I can exercise when I’m not tired.” It might not be much to look at, but Kropa’s dental chair is a custom, ergonomic solution that creates an exact fit for the user, the task and the environment, just what he, the user, wanted and needed.
So what motivates someone who works a regular nine-to-five job, has a couple of time-consuming hobbies as well as a family and associated commitments, to embark on the lengthy and taxing process of developing a tool that does exactly what he or she wants it to do, that fits the user and that performs better than the existing offerings? “Stupidity,” says Kevin Solon. And the knowledge that something better CAN exist, if someone would just sit down and design it.
To the untrained eye, the culmination of all of that “stupidity” or stubbornness of Solon’s might look like any old bike brake handle. But to the off-road motorcycle enthusiast, Solon’s more ergonomic racing controls – both a clutch handle and a brake handle — are much more.
The quest to make them himself, however, wasn’t something that Solon, a dirt bike enthusiast, had ever really planned. Instead, Solon, like Kropa, set out to find something that didn’t already exist and finally got fed up enough that he created it himself.
“Sometime in the 90s, I bought a brand new [dirt]bike,” said Solon. “I rode it in second gear on a track we have in our back yard. I tipped it over in the sand and the lever broke on it. It was cut in half,” he said. And it all happened on a bike that was less than 10 minutes old.
Solon wanted levers that could stand a little beating, something they regularly get from motorcycle racers. Granted, unbreakable control levers already existed for motorcycle racing, but Solon thought they should be improved upon. Not only should the parts be virtually unbreakable, but since racing riders today have their hands on the levers virtually non-stop thanks to improved bike technology that allows them to shift and use the clutch to maintain higher horsepower and be more competitive, Solon also thought that an unbreakable set of brake and clutch levers should be comfortable, should require less effort to operate, and should be designed to be controlled with only two fingers so that the rider could use his or her other fingers for steering. He wanted comfort, ease of use, and practicality, something Solon couldn’t find all in one package. So he designed it himself.
“There are levers that are guaranteed unbreakable and made out of aluminum, but they’re just another OEM lever made out of a stronger material,” said Solon. He wanted something else, something better, at least for himself. “But I really didn’t have the idea that I would go into production on this, I just wanted to see what I could do here,” Solon said.
Solon’s plan was to make something that would work for him, that would provide him comfort while addressing changes in bike technology, and durability so it wouldn’t break the minute it hit the ground. He started with a wooden concept handle, “then one thing evolved into another,” he said, and with the help of his brother, an industrial designer, he ended up with a set of controls – brake and clutch — that fit his own specifications, that provided him comfort, usability and durability.
“We continually made modifications. Ergonomics were definitely a consideration. All of those things required tweaking in terms of millimeters at a time. It took a fair amount of engineering and testing and refinements. It wasn’t an overnight deal – it was several years in the making,” Solon said. But now he has something that he believes will work for almost any rider.
The racing controls, said Solon, are guaranteed unbreakable, are shorter, stronger and easier to use than other controls, curved to fit the shape of the rider’s hand rather than forcing the rider to conform to the handle’s shape, and they require less force to use. They also, said Solon, offer the rider better control and reliability and help reduce fatigue. He sells them under the name “One Wheel Drive” on both his website (www.owdmx.com) and at trade shows.
Solon’s not ready to give up his day job for the handle, though. “I thought the challenge was going to be great,” he said. “I didn’t know how much work [creating a custom-fabricated product] was going to entail. It’s a very, very time consuming endeavor. You see all these companies [start up] and a few years later, you don’t know where they went. Well I know — they gave up,” he joked.
“My goal was to bring something innovative to the market, something that I’ve gotten a lot of satisfaction from,” said Solon, who works in manufacturing and dabbles in inventions in his spare time. But, effort aside, sticking it out and producing the tool that Solon wanted has paid off: almost every time someone who knows bikes try out the controls, Solon gets the same response. “Their hand fits very comfortably on the [One Wheel Drive] lever. If they feel that lever, it’s like, whoa, they might have never thought anything was wrong with their old [controls] until they felt these,” said Solon. For Solon, that positive response equals success.
Sometimes duct tape and determination are enough. A handle that’s too narrow or hard might benefit from the addition of padding or slip-resistant tape. One that’s too long can be cut down to size. A computer monitor that sits too low, contributing to neck pain for its user might be propped up with an old phone book or some other equally ingenious solution. But other times it takes the help of a professional to get the tool that’s right for a job.
While finding an exact fit for person, environment and task could make the job easier and more comfortable, not everyone is as inclined as Kropa and Solon to create their own ergonomic tools, and oftentimes for good reason – the task that the tool needs to perform may be too intricate, or the user might not know exactly how to fabricate something that’s right for the job. Fortunately, at these times, there are designers who can step in, offer guidelines, designs and assistance.
But the first step in developing a new ergonomic tool, said Stephen Wilcox, Ph.D., owner of Design Science, a Philadelphia-based industrial design firm, is to decide if there’s really a need. “If the old product can’t be improved upon, then there is really no reason to design a new one,” said Wilcox. Fashion, said Wilcox, exists because of change, but function is a matter of necessity, and that’s what a new ergonomic tool or design should focus on — function. “For a tool,” said Wilcox, “the motivation is that there must be some kind of better mousetrap.”
Wilcox’s firm specializes in designing medical products, including surgical instruments as well as devices to be used by patients. He knows when he’s stumbled upon a good idea when the procedure is improved upon for everyone involved. “What good ergonomics does,” said Wilcox, “is make the procedure easier and faster.”
For example, Wilcox’s firm is working on a new blood glucose monitoring meter. While countless devices already exist that reliably track a patient’s blood glucose level, Design Science’s model takes into consideration the traditional limitations of the diabetic users: vision problems, dexterity issues and limitations that may be associated with age. Wilcox’s design is therefore intended to be easier to read, use and handle.
Person, task or use, and environment all have to be considered when designing a new tool, whether it be for one single person like Kropa, or for a larger market, like Solon’s motorcycle control levers. And remembering that something considered “ergonomic” for one person or environment may serve no purpose when applied to another situation is key to success, too.
For Wilcox, ideas are best born from users. “Our ideas come from surgeons – that’s where we get most of them. We study procedures in great depth, we study what they do, who’s doing what, when, and where is there a potential for mistakes.” Then he and his team try to come up with the best means of fixing those problems. Solutions, he indicated, aren’t universal. “The same thing that could be a minor annoyance in an office chair could kill someone in a medical environment,” said Wilcox.
In other work situations, the same principle holds true: the person who will be using the tool is often the person who knows the most about how, or if, it can or should be improved upon. And even when a design is seen as an improvement, responding to user feedback, indicated Kropa, Solon and Wilcox, tweaking the design, and sticking with a good idea until it becomes a perfect fit, is integral to successful design and ultimately to the new tool’s adoption.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2005-02-16.