Product design fuels Daedalus' business

| Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, 11:33 p.m.

Designing a new kind of safety harness produced a hit product for Daedalus Inc., but the credit went elsewhere.

Companies such as Daedalus of Shadyside, which has been designing consumer and industrial products for clients for 34 years, usually are hidden behind a curtain.

Experts say product and industrial design is a juice that drives innovation and is crucial for the economy. But the job of companies like Daedalus is to solve problems for clients down to the last detail and support them when they go to market.

“It's in our interest to see them succeed, and we step into the background,” said Rob Parks, a principal and one of three owners.

When a competitor of Franklin, Pa.-based Miller Fall Protection unit of Honeywell Inc. introduced a fashionable version of its safety harness to prevent falls, Miller asked Daedalus how to respond. The competing product looked more like an item sold by a sporting goods store instead of an industrial supplier, said Daedalus President Matt Beale.

For many workers, wearing a safety harness is an ordinary part of the job, he said. But both Miller and Daedalus agreed that a harness must address a “usability gap” that existed with such equipment, such as the tangled straps, adjustment and flexibility issues and where to put things like a worker's cell phone or water bottle.

To discover functionality problems such as tangled straps — the “spaghetti problem,” according to Beale — “we spent a lot of time watching people do such things as build bridges, homes and buildings, and welding and riveting. ... We wanted it to be something users might buy for themselves as opposed to an item that was given to them by their employer,” he said.

At its second-floor offices, Daedalus' 24 software, electrical and mechanical engineers, designers and researchers work in fields such as safety, medical technology, and on-screen computer interfaces. Daedalus focuses mainly on business products in health care, safety, laboratory devices and equipment. It has helped develop products such as a temperature-monitored baby bath tub for Thorley Industries LLC in the Strip District, which does business as 4moms, and a drinking water dispenser for South Side-based Evive Station LLC that combines free water and advertising at academic sites.

To reduce tangles on Miller's safety harness, webbing with a lighter color on the inside and darker on the outside was introduced. A large plate that organized the web of straps made it more clear what goes on a user's back. A buckle made it easier to tighten, and a pivot feature on each hip gave users more bending ability. An accessory kit snaps on at the pivot, so a cell phone, water bottle or other needs are accessible, Beale said.

Sales of the Miller harness, dubbed the “Revolution,” exceeded expectations, selling in five weeks the number expected to sell in a year, according to Miller Fall Protection. A spokesman could not be reached for comment.

The Industrial Designers Society of America in Herndon, Va., says there are about 1,900 firms in the United States, with more than 40,000 employees. About 60 schools have product and/or industrial design programs, including Pitt and Carnegie Mellon.

Daedalus, Maya Design on the South Side and Bally Design Inc. on Penn Avenue are the top product design companies in Pittsburgh, said Jonathan Cagan, a mechanical engineering professor and director of innovation and entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon's College of Engineering.

Such companies are important because they represent what it takes to be innovative. They must have technical, user-interface and business capabilities — the core disciplines needed to create new products, Cagan said.

“Innovation is a hot topic, but it requires a formal process that is repeatable and adds value,” Cagan said. “Innovation is critical to our nation. You cannot create new revenue if you don't make new products.”

Daedalus was founded as Tim Cunningham Design in 1979 by its namesake, a veteran of the former Westinghouse Design Center. Cunningham changed the company's name to Daedalus in 1983.

Beale joined the company in 1988 and became a partner in 1993. In the 1990s, it partnered with others for engineering expertise needed on projects. In 2000, it merged with Excel Technologies Inc., adding Rob Parks as a principal and moved to its current location. Drew Degentesh became a principal in 2004, and Cunningham retired in 2009, Beale said.

John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or

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