Robotics engineers and industrial designers, rapid prototyping and 3D printing, adroit methodology and open workflow — sounds like a Silicon Valley tech startup, right? But things aren’t always as they seem. In the case of Pittsburgh-based company 4Moms, this business model is being applied to baby products that leave the status quo in the dust. We went to their headquarters to get a behind-the-scenes look at a few products poised to change things up in the baby world once again.
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The product or need is the impetus of most companies’ creations. But Rob Daley and Henry Thorne simply wanted to run a business that centered on open thought, transparency and making a difference. After searching for stagnant markets that would quickly reward innovation, they found the juvenile sector — and it was practically wrapped in cobwebs. The car seats, strollers, play pens and baby rockers on shelves today are practically unchanged from 40 years ago; imagine if smartphones were the same size and shape as corded phones from the ’80s.
And so 4Moms (it’s a misleading name, we believe) became an industrial design firm filled with robotics engineers who happen to make baby products. Plenty of them are already popular. Take the mamaRoo ($200+), for instance. It uses complex algorithms and microprocessors to create the rocking and swinging motion that calms children and stimulates brain function. These algorithms were developed by gathering data from mothers wearing accelerometer-clad sweaters while holding or rocking their children. The mamaRoo’s overall size is 40 percent smaller than past iterations and is visually inspired by automotive design — specifically, the VW Beetle. Their Origami ($850) stroller opens and closes with a push of a button, has LED lights and can charge your phone; their Breeze ($300) playpen can be set up and broken down in seconds.
Building on this type of innovation is a major goal for 4Moms, and there are several exciting products poised for release in 2014. One is an infant car seat with a base that installs itself. Car seat safety is a huge part of parenthood, because children are in the car just as much as adults with one major difference: our seats are bolted to the frame while theirs are installed and removed multiple times a day. Though the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system has dramatically helped ease of installation for the car seat base, nearly 80 percent of them are still installed improperly. A major reason is that it takes nearly 50 pounds of downward force to cinch the belts to the proper tension. One can find oneself sweating after only a few minutes of trying to make sure the base is level. Doing this while your child is screaming in their car seat is maddening, to say the least.
The engineers and designers at 4Moms once again questioned the entire process. Parents simply place the new and improved base on the seat and attach the LATCH straps. The base then levels itself using all sorts of electronics and applies the exact amount of pressure necessary to cinch the straps. Boom. Done. One button push. An LCD screen on the side of the base walks you through the three-step process and displays progress as it works.
The rockaRoo, available January 2014, builds on the MamaRoo’s use of algorithms and affordable computer chips to create a product unlike any other swing on the market. That is, most swings have a short range of motion at the pivot point (the baby’s head) and a longer, smoother range farther away (the feet). Knowing this wasn’t an effective use of motion or space (because they have freaking scientists and engineers on their staff) they flipped the whole idea. Instead of suspending the child from the top, they would support from the bottom. This creates a sensation akin to riding a rocking horse — a rocking horse that graduated from MIT. The rockaRoo adapts its motion to accommodate the weight of the baby, takes up much less space and looks eons more attractive than most alternatives.
After spending a few hours with the 4Moms staff touring the office and seeing their labs and work benches, it was obvious that creating a great business comes first; sales and IPOs are secondary. Looking at their lineup, all parents should be grateful that 4Moms is innovating in this antiquated, stagnant market. The brand is changing the way a new generation will grow up, helping parents justify spending hard-earned money on “baby stuff”. Anything making that pill easier to swallow is welcomed with open arms.