A range of harnesses for just about any field of application? This is what you get with our IGNITE SERIES. The models feature clever details in terms of design and functionality and have now been recognised by the German Design Award. Jan-Eric Kruse from our Product Development department explains how the initial idea became a prize-winning harness.
Jan-Eric Kruse has been working for SKYLOTEC since 2013. The 29-year old studied at the “Industrial Design” technical college in Osnabrück, Germany, and is responsible for the development of new products at our head office in Neuwied. He also worked on our prize-winning IGNITE SERIES range of harnesses. In this interview, he talks about how the range came about, the inspiration behind it and how it felt when he found out that it had won a prize.
Question: Jan-Eric, you received the German Design Award in Frankfurt for the IGNITE SERIES. How did it feel when you accepted the prize?
Jan-Eric Kruse: It was amazing! We celebrated our win of course. When we first heard the news that we had won the German Design Award, I opened a beer. It’s not just any old prize, after all. It is one of the highest accolades that designers in Germany and Europe can be given. And it is evidence that we are on the right track with our range of harnesses, which were designed to make them easy for users to handle.
Question: What’s it like when you’re working on new products?
Jan-Eric Kruse (laughs): With the IGNITE SERIES it was quite chaotic to begin with. But that had little to do with the fact that we just got on with it. Right from the start, our aim was to develop a concept for a new range of harnesses, which would be suitable for users in industry; in particular those working in wind energy. The main focus was on the details that combine function and design in a meaningful way. It was chaotic because I started by distributing a selection of harnesses around the office. One at a time, I tried the models on. I wanted to get a feel for the equipment that many workers use as part of their personal protective equipment on a daily basis.
Question: Don’t you need a certain amount of experience for that?
Jan-Eric Kruse: I had hardly been exposed at all to fall protection harnesses before. However, this was not a disadvantage. It was actually very helpful when I was testing the equipment on myself. People who are not biased are most likely to notice when something is wrong. And that was certainly the case for me.
Question: Did you just rely on your own intuition?
Jan-Eric Kruse: No, of course that would be no good at all. I often went over to the Vertical Rescue College. In our training centre, I was able to try out the models in practice – and ask our instructors about their own experience. They are the true specialists and they were able to provide useful feedback on PPE from years of working in wind energy or rescue at heights or as members of rescue organisations. This meant that we were able to build up a good overall picture of areas in which improvements could be made.
Question: What did you pay particular attention to?
Jan-Eric Kruse: I examined every individual component – from the padding, via the clasps and adjusters, to the colour system. I was looking for answers as to which features make sense and which don’t. In this way, we wanted to improve the looks and functionality of every individual component. That was part of our assignment when we first started working on this project. For me, however, there was no question of adapting elements just for the sake of their looks, without them having some recognisable benefit as well.
Question: What specific things did you notice?
Jan-Eric Kruse: In the end, there were a lot of things that made it easy for me to improve the comfort and handling of the harness. For example, I established that the weight was not distributed in the best way as most of the weight was carried by the shoulders. For users wearing their harnesses for several hours, this gets really uncomfortable after a while. It often leads to considerable muscle soreness and tensions in the neck and shoulder area. I also learned that, with standard adjusters, the straps get looser when users move about in them for a long time. Many users have to battle with this. It’s a real nuisance for them if they have to keep tightening the harness over and over again. I also found it hard work having to pull the straps in the shoulder area upwards to adjust them. From an ergonomic point of view, the best solution is to have straps that you can pull down on. This requires a lot less strength.
Question: It’s clear that these aspects don’t make it any more pleasant to wear a harness. Are there also things that make handling the harness more difficult?
Jan-Eric Kruse: Definitely! Some users have problems just putting the harness on properly. This is mostly because they only have to use their equipment very rarely. They can’t see at a glance which way up their harness should be worn. I found this out for myself when I tried to put them on. And this is consistent with the experiences of our instructors on some of our training courses. They also told me that inexperienced users sometimes attach them to the wrong loops. This can have dire consequences in the event of a fall. So there was clear potential for making improvements aimed at preventing incorrect usage. We achieved this by introducing a clear colour scheme for the harness, identifying the main anchor points in bright orange.
Loose dangling straps getting on your nerves? Not with our clever harness winding system.
The orange colouring tells users which way is up on the harness.
Question: The IGNITE SERIES is a range of harnesses with four models. Are the improvements applicable to the entire range?
Jan-Eric Kruse: All the models have the same well-designed colour scheme for harnesses and main anchor points. They also all have new adjusters, which prevent the straps from unwanted loosening. But there are also some differences between them, because another important criterion is which field of application the harness will be used for. The IGNITE ION is a relatively simple harness for users working in construction or maintenance, who only rarely use their equipment. The IGNITE ARGON, on the other hand, is designed completely differently because it is made for rope access technology. People using this kind of harness need to be able to abseil, position themselves and carry equipment or tools with them.
Question: You are faced with a wide variety of challenges when developing your products. Are you allowed to give free rein to your ideas during the design?
Jan-Eric Kruse: Obviously we have to follow standards and we have to make sure that we don’t neglect the required protective function. However, these standards only represent a minimum requirement for a project. We are constantly working on developing details that go beyond these minimum requirements. That is the challenge we face. It’s the only way we can deliver added value for the user. Let’s take another look at the example of the orange anchor points. This may not a particularly special feature in terms of safety, but it is massively important.
The IGNITE ARGON is perfectly suited for rope access technology.
For users who do not need to use their equipment every day: IGNITE ION
Question: And where does your inspiration come from?
Jan-Eric Kruse: Anyone who develops products needs to have a creative streak. During my studies, I also learned a lot about materials and their properties. That helps a great deal. Everyone has their own approach to doing things. In my view, it doesn’t do any harm if you don’t restrict yourself to certain subjects. I often surf the Internet, looking at details of architecture, crafts or toys. And I often go to the zoo. There is nothing more fascinating than observing nature. It’s important to keep your eyes open and think outside the box.
Question: To what extent did that help you when you were developing the IGNITE SERIES?
Jan-Eric Kruse: A great deal, no question about it. For the adjusters, for example, I looked around to see what kind of solutions there could be. Outdoor backpacks, products for paragliding, kite surfing or the military – all of these were very revealing for my work. For the other components, I followed a more consistent logic. For the padding, for example, it basically comes down to human anatomy. So I got some specialist reading material from a surgeon friend of mine and read up on the subject. I drafted out my ideas on a human torso. It soon became clear that many ridges of different sizes have a critical advantage over a large surface area. This not only prevents pressure points, but it also relieves the spine because loads are perfectly distributed. We developed our new hip padding based on this discovery.
Question: But it can’t all have gone as smoothly as you have described up till now. Were there also times you despaired?
Jan-Eric Kruse: Yes that happened when we were developing the new adjusters. We worked for nine months on this together with the design engineers. Setbacks are part of the job for developers. In these kinds of situations, it’s best not to just stick your head in the sand. I just let things lie for a week and then start again with a new attempt. This usually helps and it was certainly the case for the adjusters. It means that you are all the more satisfied when you’ve got to grip with things with the team. And it all paid off in the end: the German Design Award is great recognition of our outstanding efforts.
Question: For the German Design Award, your work was assessed by a jury of experts. What is the feedback from the people who need the IGNITE SERIES to do their job?
Jan-Eric Kruse: We have had some very positive feedback on the adjusters and padding. It also went down well that the harnesses have been designed to be visually appealing. This has since become something of a trend amongst users. If at the same time the product has the right functionality, the equipment is accepted and people are happy to wear it. At the end of the day, this is a real benefit in terms of safety. We worked on the development for a year. It was also important that we kept getting new inspiration throughout the ongoing process. That was also crucial for achieving an outstanding result.
Question: Jan-Eric, can we finish off with a more general question? How do you become a product developer at SKYLOTEC?
Jan-Eric Kruse (laughs): Through a lot of fortunate coincidences. In autumn 2013, I applied to several manufacturers for an internship. Cycling and climbing are my hobbies so I looked for a suitable company with which I could identify myself. As SKYLOTEC is at home not only in industry, but also in the world of sport, it suited me very well. Also, the topic of “harnesses” was already of great interest to me during my studies. During the job interview, the opportunity soon came up to write up my Bachelor thesis here as well. That was a great opportunity, for which I am very grateful.