|Graco's newest mobile entertainer features a clear plastic window molded from Eastman Chemical's DuraStar material. Its engineer says the patented design ensures safety and increases the play value of the unit without raising costs.|
Most design engineers have one target customer group in mind when bringing a new product to market. Jamey Hutchinson is one design engineer who has to satisfy several groups with each product he designs. Hutchinson is the design manager at Graco, a leading manufacturer of children's products.
While balancing the needs of children and their parents, Hutchinson and his team must first design products that are safe. "Our products' safety requirements are extremely high," he says. "There are no accidents when it comes to children. We hold safety first above all else, but our toys and products must also be durable and engaging for a child. Finally, we must find a way to make these products cost-effectively."
Safety was the first and foremost consideration for Graco's latest-model mobile entertainer. Formerly called a walker, all products of this type went through extensive redesigns in the late '90s for safety. "The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Assn. issued a new standard in 1997, one we helped author, that adds fixed back wheels and a skid strip on the base," says Hutchinson.
Second on the list of requirements for the mobile entertainer was a means of adding more play value and increasing infant stimulation. "We hit upon the idea of a clear window tray," he says, "which allows the child to see his or her feet and the ground beneath as the unit moves. We do research with parents on a regular basis, and most of them said the idea was a good one because while the toys on the entertainer are static, the floor and scenery below change."
The window was designed as tongue and groove with a few fasteners. Graco designers patented the idea and then looked for the right material for the job. Initially PC was a candidate, but at annual volumes of 150,000, designers began looking for a less costly option.
Toughness was a major requirement for the PC alternative. Says Hutchinson, "Our concern was that the child would have all kinds of things handed to them, and then they would bang things down on the tray. The material needed to be tough enough to withstand this treatment without shattering." The design team developed a ball test that it used to check acceptable materials for impact resistance. It was a specific weight and height drop test to simulate the velocity and force of a toddler banging a toy.
One of the materials tested, DuraStar (a copolyester) from Eastman, met all of the requirements. Graco conducted impact resistance tests on several grades of this polymer and selected 2010, a high-impact-resistant grade that includes a mold release. At the time, it cost 20 percent less than PC, passed the toughness test, and provided the clarity needed. Eastman market development representative Ann Mathis says, "The polymer's long-term clarity and resistance to household cleaners make it ideal for children's products because they tend to get handed down from generation to generation, and it maintains its clarity without yellowing or hazing."
Perhaps most importantly, Graco's molding partners were able to run the material immediately without any snags. "We mold a lot of our own products," says Hutchinson, "but this product was molded by one of our partners. [This partner] sampled a number of materials, and with Durastar, was able to put it in the machine and run parts immediately."
"The polymer was easy to process, and the part readily released from the mold," says Al Schmidt, Graco manufacturing engineer. "We had a smooth transition to the manufacturing process and plan to use the polymer again on several other clear parts." Schmidt added that Graco's product also meets FDA safety requirements.
Eastman Chemical Co.