Release Date: January 20, 2006
BUFFALO. N.Y. -- From automatic jar openers to remote controls for washer and dryers, a new program at the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technology Transfer (TRERC) at the University at Buffalo is helping major corporations produce next-generation consumer products that are "more usable and accessible to all," including persons with disabilities and the elderly.
The new "Fortune 500" program is designed to advance the philosophy of involving consumers in all phases of product design and development, working with the nation's largest and most influential corporations -- those Fortune 500 companies producing new household products for consumers.
With the aid of the Fortune 500 program, Black & Decker and White-Rodgers Inc. recently introduced new mainstream consumer products, and the Whirlpool Corp. and Eastman Kodak soon will roll out new products with features designed both for the average consumer and people who have difficulty using traditional products due to physical limitations caused by age or disability.
Tire maker Michelin, with the assistance of the TRERC, currently is evaluating entering the market for products for people with disabilities with the introduction of a longer-lasting combination wheel/tire for wheelchairs, according to Jim Leahy, project administrator and principal investigator for the Fortune 500 program.
The Fortune 500 program is just one component of TRERC, which works with companies to research, evaluate, transfer and commercialize assistive devices for persons affected by disabilities. The center is one unit under the umbrella of UB's Center for Assistive Technology, which is part of the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions.
"Companies are always looking to broaden their market," explains Leahy. "Historically, however, manufacturers of consumer products have made product design decisions without factoring in the needs, wants and expectations of the full range of consumers.
"Our message is that when companies are designing new mainstream consumer products, they can expand their markets by considering the needs of aging baby boomers and people with various levels of impairment."
According to Leahy, the Fortune 500 program helps companies develop new products -- and improve the functional design of existing products -- by providing the companies with unique market research about the needs of the elderly and people with disabilities, as well as analysis of existing products and competitors' products. In the end, partner companies receive suggestions for design improvements and innovations, and are provided with follow-up detailed focus-group analysis of product prototypes and new products.
"When we provide the companies with well-articulated consumer information on needed design and functional features for a product, the result is a more useful, well-received and financially viable product being introduced into the marketplace," Leahy says.
Collaboration with the Fortune 500 program is free to the companies. Funding for the program comes from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) of the U.S. Department of Education. NIDRR funds research centers like the TRERC, whose mission is to commercialize advanced technologies and innovative prototypes that increase the functional capabilities of people with disabilities, including the elderly.
Much of the research for the Fortune 500 program is done by MBA students from the UB School of Management. This gives the students valuable hands-on work experience, in addition to providing the company with valuable market data, and gives the students entry-level experience in an emerging consumer-product market: transgenerational and universal design.
Second-year MBA student Liz Lagowski, for example, worked closely with Whirlpool over the past year, conducting consumer focus groups, researching the washer-and-dryer marketplace, and analyzing the aging baby-boomer market. In the next year or so, with the aid of the Fortune 500 program and Lagowski, Whirlpool will introduce a new interactive device for washer and dryers that will enable remote operation and interaction of those appliances. This device will address the needs of consumers having or aging into mobility, vision or hearing disabilities, while serving the needs of the broader general washer-and-dryer marketplace population.
"I've become interested in the big-picture questions of new product development and how it relates to consumer need and behavior," says Lagowski, who also is working with Michelin on the evaluation of its new wheel/tire for wheelchairs. "I'm looking forward to applying what I learned working with Whirlpool after I graduate."
Fellow MBA student Jonathan Leahy worked with White-Rogers, a manufacturer of thermostats, humidifiers and electronic air cleaners. The collaboration in 2005 led to the introduction of the White-
Rogers 90 series Blue thermostat, which features several design changes, including large and easy-to-see characters; large, intuitive red and blue temperature keys; audio programming, and a reminder alert to change the furnace filter -- all on a large 12 square-inch touch screen display.
"When you have a good design, you not only make mainstream products easier for the elderly and people with disabilities to use, you make them easier for everyone to use," he says. "I think that's an eye opener for some companies and helps them see the bottom-line value of what we can offer them."
The Fortune 500 program's most successful product to date -- and the one that, in effect, launched the program -- is the Black & Decker Automatic Lids Off jar opener. In its second year of production, the jar opener is a big seller for the company, particularly as a gift for the elderly from friends and family.
Moving forward, the TRERC's Leahy is working with Kodak on a new design for its digital photography line, and is pursuing opportunities with other mainstream consumer-product companies.
"We have an opportunity to use our creditability and experience with major U.S. manufacturers to significantly influence the next generation of consumer products," he says. "There is tremendous value in improving the functional features of everyday consumer products by immediately increasing their accessibility and usability."
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.