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Child-safety concerns lead to new division: Company uses R&D to manufacture innovative car seat

October 10, 2005

Indiana Mills & Manufacturing Inc. is creating a new division, launching a new product, and cutting a new path straight to retail consumers. It's a big departure from the 45-year-old company's historical path to profitability.

Westfield-based IMMI has long made its money supplying a lengthy list of manufacturers and distributors in the transportation and heavy-equipment sectors with its innovative seat belts, rollover systems for heavy trucks, and restraint systems for school buses and on- and off-road commercial vehicles.

But company officials felt so strongly about the need for a better child car seat, they invented one with several neverbefore-used features and launched it to consumers in September at www.Safe-Guardseat.com.

"I have young kids myself, and I'm not alone here," said Steve Wallen, general manager for IMMI's new SafeGuard division, manufacturer of the SafeGuard Child Seat. "If you look at the child seat compared to the safety advances made in the automobile, the child safety seats most often used today are almost antiquated. We became concerned about that."

IMMI's SafeGuard seat was a headliner at September's Demofall conference in Huntington Beach, Calif. The influential annual Demofall has been the launch pad for technological advances such as TiVo and the PalmPilot.

"About the last product you'd expect to see at a showcase for new, high-technology is a child safety seat," said Edward Baig, who covered the event for USA Today. "And yet the first-of-its-kind SafeGuard child safety seat ... probably created the loudest buzz."

Wallen said launching the SafeGuard seat was a difficult decision. IMMI has long supplied buckles, straps and other components to the child car seat industry. Many of its clients are now its competitors.

"But there hasn't been significant advances made to the child seat in 20 years," Wallen said. "The child safety seat is looked at as a piece of furniture, or worse, is sold along with toys in big-box retail stores. We were worried not only as a company in the safety industry, but as parents. A child car seat should be an engineered piece of safety equipment."

Wallen said several primary features differentiate the SafeGuard seat from any other on the market.

At $429, the price tag also sets the seat apart. Most child safety seats, often sold through mass retailers, cost $70 to $250. Wallen said big-box retailers demand that prices stay low, preventing technological advances.

"We realize right now, this will be a niche market," Wallen said. "We're looking to launch it in specialty stores by Christmas."

IMMI's posi-latch system allows the SafeGuard seat to be installed by pushing a single button. The harness retracts like the seat belt of a car and is easily adjustable with a single knob. The seat also features one-touch head rest and shoulder-height and belt-placement adjustment.

The ease of installment should not be downplayed, said Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who long ago began urging the industry to address misuse issues. Research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 85 percent of child safety seats are improperly installed, compromising their effectiveness.

"Safety seat misuse is a leading factor in what should be preventable injuries and deaths to children, the most vulnerable vehicle passengers," Hall said. "The Safe-Guard approach holds so much promise. I hope its advanced technologies, materials and design will revolutionize the way the child seat industry develops next-generation safety seats."

The seat-designed for children 22-65 pounds-is built on an energy-absorbing aluminum frame, not molded plastic, which can transfer a crash jolt to the child occupant, Wallen said. The Smart Core foam between the child and the frame provides another layer of energy-absorbing protection designed to reduce everyday road vibration and trauma during crashes. The head rest, Wallen said, is molded to provide better side-impact protection.

IMMI's Westfield facilities are worldrenowned for their crash-test capabilities, with three crash sleds and other instruments capable of measuring side, front and rear impact, among other things.

The SafeGuard seat was about two years in research and development. IMMI officials started preliminary designs four years ago.

During computer designing, IMMI was able to "virtually" test the product through digital designs and crash-test simulation.

"We used applied mechanics to do model crashing," Wallen said. "It allowed us to improve the product before we ever built one."

Wallen calls the SafeGuard seat IMMI's most ambitious stand-alone project in company history.

"This is just a superior product in many regards," said Susan Ferguson, senior vice president in charge of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Va.-based industry research group. "The R&D that went into this product is what really sets it apart. Many manufacturers in this category simply aren't capable of this type of research and development."

IMMI has the capacity to make up to 150,000 SafeGuard seats annually. And if demand dictates, IMMI officials are ready to expand the SafeGuard division.

"Because it's so much easier to install and it has a seven-year warranty, we think it could take the place of two child safety seats," Wallen said. "When you look at it that way, it's not that much more expensive. Besides, what is the safety of your child worth?"

IMMI officials are hopeful industry manufacturing leaders will be impressed by the seat's new features, purchase the components from IMMI's SafeGuard division, and install them in their seats. Larger manufacturers could even drive down the cost somewhat through mass production, Wallen said. Industry figures show 6 million child car seats are sold annually.

"Our vision as a company is to bring safety to the top of mind," Wallen said. "If that means we sell a lot of child seats to people, that's fine. If that means we sell a lot of components to other child-seat makers, that's fine, too. We're not looking to corner the market with this technology or even take a lot of market share.

"Our No. 1 goal is to change people's minds about child seats, and to get these features into the hands of as many parents as possible."
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