Tubbs Snowshoe Co. stakes its reputation on the quality of its bindings, so when the time came to create a new system, it had high expectations.
``We wanted a binding that was intuitive as far as getting in and out,'' said Fran Mahoney, project engineer for the Stowe, Vt.-based business. ``It had to be lightweight, it had to be easy to use, it had to work well. We also wanted it to look - for lack of a better word - modern.''
Tubbs selected a relative newcomer to the recreational equipment field, Helix Design Inc., to come up with a wholly new take on bindings.
The result, a thermoplastic polyester elastomer-based system called the Bear Hug, not only made it into production in five months, it also garnered the best design award at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Structural Plastics Division new-product design competition. The competition was held during the group's annual conference in Dearborn.
While the binding is small compared with its competitors, it fits its intended use well, said the three-judge panel of independent designers. The design award was co-sponsored by the Industrial Designers Society of America and Plastics News.
``It was very sensitive from a human factor,'' said Michael Fritz, industrial designer with Thetford Corp. of Ann Arbor, Mich. ``The aesthetics were very important to the product and to the material.''
The ``human factor'' played into the judges' other picks in the top three. The Pack Horse, a structural foam replacement for a wooden sawhorse, produced for Plastics Technology Inc. of Anacortes, Wash., has a carrying handle and adjustable-height legs. The molded-in-color, injection molded components for Buell Motorcycle Co. of East Troy, Wis., meanwhile, have an eye-catching quality.
Fritz, along with fellow judges Tom Roney, an associate professor for the College of Creative Studies in Detroit, and Evan Carpenter Crawford, an industrial designer with Sundberg Ferar of Walled Lake, Mich., said they surprised even themselves with their appreciation for the binding.
Mahoney and product manager Dan Kiniry of Tubbs came to Helix in Manchester, N.H., seeking something more intuitive than the typical collection system used to connect a snowshoe user's foot to the shoe.
``They were really looking at getting rid of the cumbersome number of straps,'' said Helix design manager A.K. Stratton. ``It's like an explosion in a spaghetti factory.''
It's not just aesthetics, Mahoney said. While a traditional binding has its place, it also requires that users learn how to tie down and connect them properly, to ensure they do not loosen during a hike.
Helix wanted to match the binding requirements to systems familiar from other sports, such as the ratchets on a snowboard binding or in-line skates, that would allow users to step in and quickly snap down into place. Adding to the complications was a requirement that the binding fit a variety of boot sizes and styles.
The earliest mockups consisted of a series of ratcheting buckles to fold a prototype piece of vinyl around a boot, Stratton said.
The result was intriguing, but far too complex and expensive, even for the higher-end recreational snowshoes retailing at up to $250 per pair. To create the final version the designers looked to manufacturing expertise from the toolmakers at Creative Machine Co. of Auburn, Maine, and molder FinProject NA Inc. of Quebec.
``Creative Machine was exceptional at accepting the challenge,'' Stratton said. ``At one point in the project, we got a phone call from them that it simply was not a manufacturable product.''
Working together, the team eliminated most of the buckles, instead creating a binding that could be molded flat, then use the properties inherent in the elastomer to allow it to curve over the boot. Helix fought for retaining a small foam layer inside the binding, which provides a higher perception of quality, while also protecting expensive hiking boots from scrapes or scratches.
Consumers have responded strongly to the Bear Hug, said Mahoney, who has the binding on his personal snowshoes.
``Usually when we introduce a product, people are skeptical,'' he said. ``Sales for the first year already were higher than expected, and we're getting early orders for [next season] that are a better level then we expected.''