Bridging the gaps with innovation

January 28, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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For David Ollila of Marquette, his invitation to the White House in January to meet President Barack Obama had a lot to do with the help he got from Twisthink in Holland.

Twisthink is a small, 10-year-old company that specializes in industrial design, sophisticated wireless electronics engineering and strategies for bringing innovative new products to new markets. Twisthink principals Gordon Stannis and Bob Niemiec, who knew Ollila from his entrepreneurial ventures and holds him in high regard, helped him find a Michigan manufacturer for his latest invention, the Marquette Backcountry Ski, which works as much like a snowshoe as it does a ski. The Twisthink guys also connected him with Ross Hoek, who has a machine shop in Holland, and with Ken Orr, a mechanical engineer near Holland, who helped Ollila develop his skis for production.

“We had a very unique role” in Ollila’s case, said Stannis, director of Twisthink design and engineering. The role was unique because it was mostly advisory — not something it ordinarily does.

With key connections provided by Twisthink and minimal capital investment, Ollila was able to launch Marquette Backcountry Ski in less than a year, while still meeting his goal of keeping his manufacturing in the U.S. That it ended up in southern Michigan (Coldwater) was a plus. His determination to create new jobs in the U.S. led to him being invited to a forum in Washington on “Insourcing American Jobs,” which was hosted by President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

Twisthink has experienced first-hand the impact of the decline in U.S. manufacturing in the past decade. Stannis said office furniture and automotive were two of the firm’s main markets in its first few years. Now, he said, “We do a lot less in those two market segments,” although Ford Motor Co. is still a client.

Niemiec, Twisthink’s president and an owner of the business along with Stannis and Kurt Dykema, explained that the firm is a hybrid, merging industrial design, technological development and business strategy under one roof.

In the corporate world, according to Niemiec, industrial design and electronic engineering “tend to reside on the opposite ends of the R&D campus.

“We are bridge builders,” he said, trying to bridge the gaps for clients between the processes of design, technology and strategy.

Housed in loft-style quarters on the top floor of a 100-year-old building at 130 Central Ave. in downtown Holland, the firm has about 25 employees, who tend to be either industrial designers or electronics engineers. Five years ago, Twisthink had 13 employees; it expects to add three more this year. The company holds approximately 120 patents.

Twisthink’s first client was Whirlpool in Benton Harbor, and it is still one of the firm’s 15 or so clients. An article about Whirlpool design that appeared in The Wall Street Journal Dec. 31 includes photos of its new line of KitchenAid-brand toasters, designed at Twisthink, according to Stannis. “We design for the retail experience,” said Stannis. “We know how to hook a customer.”

But consumer products for the home rank second on the list of markets Twisthink serves. No. 1 is wearable technology.

In fact, Twisthink recently won two design awards — an international Gold Spark Award for 2011 and an IDEA from the Industrial Designers Society of America — for a wearable sports training device it developed for Avidasports in Harper Woods. Called AvidaMetrics, it involves waterproof transmitters in wrist bands worn by competitive swimmers, which use athletic telemetry to collect eight key performance metrics in real time. The data is instantly accessible on a coach’s electronic tablet. If 100 swimmers are working out at the same time, each wearing the AvidaMetrics transmitter, the coach knows what stroke each is using at any given moment and how well each swimmer is performing.

Niemiec said about 30 AvidaMetrics systems are already in use at universities around the country.

Another wearable product developed recently by Twisthink is Quick Pick Remote Advance, for Crown Equipment Corp. of New Bremen, Ohio, a forklift manufacturer. The wireless controller is imbedded in a glove worn by the forklift operator picking a variety of products. Without the remote control, the operator must constantly get on and off the forklift to advance to the next location. With it, the operator can simply walk to the next pick station, precisely directing the forklift with the glove controls. Stannis said it eliminates about 70 percent of the walking the operator would have to do using a standard forklift, and also adds to operator safety.

Twisthink is obsessed with commodities — it doesn’t like commodity pricing and vows not to let that happen to its clients’ products. A product perceived as a commodity — like all the others on the market — is always subject to being beaten down in price by ruthless customers.

A Crown forklift with the new wireless control capability is not just another forklift, and the added value is evident because customers will pay much more for it.

“This is a future commodity,” said Stannis, referring to AvidaMetrics. His point is that even a radically new product must be constantly revisited, constantly improved and re-thought — “and that’s why we’re here.”

Some of the other markets Twisthink is active in include health care: Stryker is a client, and wireless, in general, has great potential in health care, according to Niemiec.

Digital wireless video is another realm Twisthink is exploring, although it is “very, very difficult to do,” according to Stannis, adding that “it’s in the very early stages of being commercialized.”

Twisthink launched a product marketing division in 2008 called TwistHDM (high-density mesh), which it bills as industry’s first wireless lighting control system, coupled with motion detection electronics. TwistHDM’s product, called LimeLight, has been developed specifically for public parking garages. It increases energy efficiency as well as the safety of people entering and leaving a public parking garage at night. Forty parking garages across North America have been fitted with LimeLight, including at least one in Grand Rapids.

TwistHDM just announced last week that LimeLight will be offered exclusively as an integrated system within Philips Outdoor LED luminaires. LimeLight’s control system will operate the Philips luminaires through its Zigbee-based wireless control technology, which automatically adjusts each luminaire’s light output based on the amount of ambient natural light during the day and using the motion sensing mode after dark.

Pat Burel, director of technical services at TwistHDM, said that along with energy efficiency, “the safety of the parking patron is also a key driver in the development of the algorithms.” The system can instantly deliver full lighting on an entire floor or flat lot area, and it is web-enabled, “providing all grouping, scheduling, energy reporting and immediate e-mail notifications of any outlier activity.”

Twisthink sees opportunities in even prosaic endeavors. Stannis recently traveled to Southern California where a university is trying to come up with a practical bike-share program. Bike-sharing, which is already being done in Paris, London and Washington, D.C., involves basic bicycles available for spontaneous, temporary use by students or commuters at a low cost. Advertising space on the bike frames generates additional revenue.

The idea is totally green, of course, but the bike-share programs have long been plagued by the loss of bikes. So Stannis spent a couple of days on campus riding a bike, meeting with students and faculty, and “immersing myself in their market.”

“We are designing a bike-sharing (business) that is profitable,” said Stannis. “If it works, it will be replicated in other environments.”

It’s a safe bet it involves wireless technology.

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