Design and hi-tech production solves important challenge - Business Works
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Design and hi-tech production solves important challenge

James Langdom, designer and inventor
James Langdon and the guide dog puppies in training
new design of the classic harness for guide dogs used by blind people is expected to revolutionise the lives of both owners and the dogs themselves. The Gentle Guider sprung from the RSA Student Design Awards to find an innovation that aids a disability. It combines a valuable social innovation, a significantly-improved design and a modern production technique that means each harness is custom-made for each dog exactly. James Langdon explains why he chose this challenge and its success.

Past winners of the RSA Student Design Awards include Sir Jonathan Ive, Senior Vice-President of Industrial Design at Apple; fashion designer Betty Jackson; Andy Clark, who designed the Heathrow Express train; and Hot Springs radiator designer and founder of Priestmangoode, Paul Priestman.

With the RSA's project brief, my first instinct was to aid the blind. My mother, Sue Langdon, has walked 12 Guide Dog puppies over the past 8 years, so I have grown up with them!

Guide Dogs, as a charity, has been working tirelessly for over 80 years training man's best friend to aid the blind. But in all this time, there has been no major design change to the guide dog harness. Linda Gaitskell is a guide dog owner, known to my family because her guide dog Kara had been of our puppies. She was the first stakeholder in researching whether any improvement could be made to such a long-standing design.

I first interviewed, observed and questioned blind users such as Linda about their daily lives. I wanted to know if there was anything that they struggle to do and I observed their gadgets and daily routines. The guide dog harness kept cropping up!

Traditional guide dog harness design
The traditional guide dog harness

Linda really wanted to change the harness, not just for her own independence, but also to make Kara more comfortable and to have something that Kara could feel proud of wearing. Working with Guide Dog Trainers helped me to develop various designs. The original harnesses are lose fitting, wear out and break easily. "My dog deserves better! We wouldn't wear a jumper that didn't fit and looked bad," said Linda.

Kara has been working for Linda for just over 3 years and on first inspection, her harness was found to be 'dirty and smelly'. The leather harness, when it gets wet through rain or a sweating dog, can harden and even crack. "The harness is bulky and difficult to orientate when I put it on Kara," said Linda who is totally blind. I decided that it must be possible to come up with a better design!

How the new harness goes on
How the new harness fits the guide dog

I also visited the existing manufacturer. The manufacturing process has hardly changed in the last 80 years. There are three people employed to make the harnesses for the global market and they make roughly 1200 harnesses every year - that's around three harnesses a day. The handle is made out of mild steel that is bent in a hand bender and the attachment points for the lead are hand-riveted, so the process is quite traditional.

Jay Taylor, a Guide Dog Trainer of 22 years, pointed to the ergonomical issue of the harness only coming in a few sizes so it doesn't fit the dog exactly. In practice, this means that a harness can 'roll' and suggests a less than comfortable fit. The handle (which weighs roughly 175g) is not light. It is made from a mild steel rod and is dipped in plastic which doesn't make for the optimum product. This weighty handle, when dropped on a guide dog's back, causes some dogs to sit and that can lead to a dog failing it training. With a guide dog costing £18,000 to train fully, a better solution would mean that this money hasn't been wasted.

User-centred research including all the stakeholders, even the existing manufacturer, lead me to the solution: the Gentle Guider. A harness that is made to fit each dog exactly; a harness with a handle raised off the dog's back; a harness that even glows in the dark. Working closely with Linda and Jay, I went through an iterative design process that allowed for a completely user-centred design to be developed.

3D scanning of guide dog
3D scanning of the guide dog

The inventiveness of the Gentle Guider design stems from the process by which it is created. Each dog is scanned in 3D as they enter one of four Guide Dog Training Centres. This 3D scan allows a computer-aided model (CAD) to be built on a computer, generating a harness to that dog's specific size and shape. The dogs are quite young at this stage, but they do not grow significantly, so the harness will fit them even as they grow.

Now for the magic. Each harness is printed - yes, 3D printed. This allows for each dog's individual harness to be made in situ at the training centre, ready for its new owner. Importantly, 3D printing is one of the most cost-effective ways of bespoke manufacture. In earlier years it was only used for costly Formula 1 prototypes, but it will not be long before we can all have a 3D printer is our homes!

3D printers work in similar way to an inkjet printer, laying down a cross section of a material on a plane and building this up into a 3D creation. This gives greater design freedom compared to a mould necessary for classical machining.

The new guide dog harness
A guide dog wearing the new Gentle Guider

The Gentle Guider is made from a rubber-like material, allowing flex and firmness, depending on the parameters set in the CAD model. Adidas and Gillette use these printers for creating fully-functioning sports boots and razors. So why not use it for the next generation of guide dog harness?

With each dog having an individually-fitted harness, a guide dog owner's best friend is comfortable. As Linda rightly says, "We wouldn't wear a pair of jeans that were too big for us". Jay Taylor agrees, "The handle not dropping onto the dog's back mean that less dogs will fail their training". This inventiveness has engaged people into the real potential for a cost-effective design. 3D printing is a 15-year phenomenon. The drop in prices and expansion in the awareness of such technology is expanding exponentially. For some, the design change may seem radical, but guide dog users such as Linda with Kara are more than ready for an innovation!

In social design, we must strive to produce user-centric products that truly benefit a consumer. We should be pulled by the consumers' needs, not thinking that we are able to push them into our ideas and ideals. This is why the benefits of the Gentle Guider truly fit a community that needs such an advancements in technology. The Gentle Guider could actually benefit all dogs!

James Langdon studied Product Design Engineering at the University of Nottingham and received a Highly Commended Award in the 2012 RSA Student Design Awards for the Gentle Guider. He currently works in an industrial placement in Digital Marketing at L'Oreal, has had experience as a Packaging Development engineer for Heinz.

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