Arena Blog

The old ways are sometimes best (or at least really cool)

Posted in Arena, BOM Management
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Most umbrellas today are cheap – literally and figuratively. They turn inside out at the slightest of winds. They are given away to advertise everything from tequila to the World Wildlife Fund. The handles are molded plastic, the spokes are pliable pot metal and the mechanisms seem to stick more often than not. They seem to come in one of two types – the giant golf umbrella or the tiny push-button umbrella – and the mechanisms that drive the raising and lowering of the canopy are familiar, yet unremarkable.

In contrast, please let me introduce you to an old-fashioned umbrella mechanism with style and superior utility. The umbrella in question was produced in 1957, by a company called PJK, and the mechanism patented. The umbrella line is called “Touch and Go.”   It looks like this:


Beautiful, isn’t it? And strong. This umbrella has never turned inside out in my experience, and it has been used in blustery New England weather. The spokes are thick, with a rectangular cross-section, and oriented such that the bending moment to flip the umbrella inside out acts through the long axis of the rectangle.

The true genius of this mechanism though, is the tensioning system. Rather than employ a spring inside the umbrella shaft, this umbrella uses the spokes themselves to generate tension. Look again at the detail picture. The spokes are aligned in pairs and when force is exerted on the tip of the umbrella, the pairs are compressed, bowing the two sides out to form the lovely petal shape you see in the photo. That petal shape is a pair of loaded leaf springs. The spring tension is then captured by a trigger-style mechanism at the loaded point.

The umbrella closure is the most impressive part of the mechanism operation. Upon hitting the button, the leaf springs are released, resulting in lightning-fast contraction of the canopy. The canopy snaps back so quickly that a majority of the water is left behind. The canopy is left damp but not dripping.

I found this umbrella in a thrift store 20 years ago – the handle you see here I machined myself, when the old one finally cracked. This umbrella is a product both hardy and beautiful enough to be worthy of reworking, enabling true “green” behavior – repairing rather than throwing away for a cheaper new version.

This old-fashioned mechanism is almost certainly more difficult and more costly to manufacture than the mechanism that has become the norm. But in this case, what we have given up in our quest for a cheaper utilitarian product is both beauty and superiority of function.

About the Author

Kathy Davies

Kathy teaches at Stanford University, where her students use Design Thinking to design cutting edge products and to reshape their lives, at Stanford and beyond. Kathy has worked with Arena ...

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