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May 1, 2002

5 Min Read
Putting a new spin on toothbrush design


In the $1.2 billion toothbrush industry, these battery-operated brushes (above and left) with two spinning heads and eye-catching designs are part of a growing segment of innovative products that both kids and parents like. For designers at Zooth and TriMax, these brushes offer a good example of collaboration. The project went from concept to production in less than six months.

Parents have long struggled with the morning and night "brush your teeth" routine. On the one hand, most children eventually learn to put the paste on the brush and drag it across their teeth. Proper brushing, however, is another matter entirely.

A recent wave of affordable, motorized spin brushes attempts to help in this regard, but these models offer only one spinning brush head. A major toothbrush OEM, Zooth, is now bringing a dual-spinning-head product to market that should cover even the slowest of brushers. The method by which this innovation came to market illustrates why collaboration between design and manufacture is becoming essential to new product success.

Tight Timeline
Believe it or not, the $1.2 billion toothbrush industry plays in one of the most competitive of consumer markets. While a toothbrush isn't a one-use product, it is purchased once every few months. If you've taken a stroll down the toothbrush aisle lately, you've also noticed how many choices are now available. High volumes and multiple competitors make this a market ripe for product differentiation and innovation.

Zooth Inc., a privately held OEM based in Wichita Falls, TX, made a name for itself by working effectively with licensors such as Disney, Mattel, and Hanna Barbera to make manual children's toothbrushes with molded likenesses of cartoon characters. In fact, it is ranked No. 2 in the U.S. in the children's toothbrush category.

Early in 2001, the company made a decision to expand its business


significantly with the development of a line of unique motorized toothbrushes. Zooth marketers began working with TriMax, the product design and development division of resin distributor Prime Alliance, to determine what kind of product they should take to market. Several focus group sessions attended by Zooth and TriMax designers identified strong and weak points of current motorized toothbrushes.

According to TriMax Principal Rob Banning, Zooth developed an aggressive timetable for bringing the new spin brush to market. "We began in late August 2001 with a concept and by January 2002, we were debugging and preparing production volumes," he says. "This timeline could not have been a reality unless all parties involved worked collaboratively and simultaneously. This project involved a true teamwork approach with a dynamite team. For me, it is a blueprint for reducing product development time and managing a project effectively."

Team Effort
Exactly who were the players in this exemplary project? First came Zooth, of course, an OEM supplier to the Wal-Marts of the world. Then came the North American vendor team, consisting of TriMax and two contract manufacturers to build the brushes—Tecco and Fortune Electronics. Finally, an Asian team headed by TriMax Asia General Manager Caudio Chu cut every injection mold from prototyping to production for 29 separate parts in nine weeks.

"This was a military-style attack on tooling," explains Banning. Often the team worked around the clock, with the North American tool designers taking the first "shift," sending designs to Asia, and then letting the Asian team cut tools on the second "shift," he adds. The motto was to make every 24 hours count—to accomplish something specific and tangible every 24 hours.

To coordinate between industrial design, mechanical engineering, prototype design and tooling, tool design, and electrical engineering, the team used ftp sites to exchange files and information. Primarily, part design was done with SolidWorks, with tool design completed using Unigraphics.

Global Resin Supply
In addition to the technical and manufacturing challenges, the Zooth toothbrush program also faced certain material sourcing issues. Since the toothbrushes would be molded in China, Zooth needed a seamless, global approach to material selection and sourcing from its resin distributor Prime Alliance.

"This project really epitomizes what our Total Solutions Provider strategy is all about," says Tom Irvine, Prime Alliance president and ceo. "We were involved from beginning to end and even coordinated the supply of BASF resin in China."

According to Irvine, the global nature of the plastics industry now affects everyone, even plastics distributors. In the past, most plastics distributors in the U.S. were regionally or nationally focused. By taking a global approach, Irvine's group can coordinate product development and material sourcing on a global basis to help its customers get to market faster and with fewer headaches.

Scooby Doo, Anyone?
The new Zooth brushes will hit retail shelves this quarter at a price


between $5 and $9. Keep an eye out for three initial products: Scooby Doo, Barbie, and Hot Wheels. Consumer studies have shown that these brushes should have a major appeal among children. Beyond that, the two spinning heads are not found in any other commercial toothbrush.

Banning and the North American vendor team also did some serious design work to come up with a soft-grip feature where the character is located. "We use a soft PVC overmolded onto ABS, and getting the soft material into the character area was a major achievement. We've actually applied for a design patent," says Banning. "In the end, though, this product's strong point is that it is fun for kids and has functional benefits."

Contact information
TriMax-St. Louis
St. Louis, MO
Rob Banning
(636) 458-0003

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