Open Innovation: Astronaut Glove
From the dining room to outer space; an engineer from Maine stitches together one of the most important innovations in spacesuit glove technology on an antique sewing machine in his home.
Peter Homer, United States
Out in the cold depths of space an astronaut’s glove can swell up like a balloon. It becomes stiff, stubborn and rigid, making the handling and manipulation of objects extremely onerous. It is a problem that has baffled space brains since the dawn of the space age and Congress was so concerned that it established a prize for anyone who could build a better glove than NASA.
When Peter Homer first got his hands inside an astronaut glove he was surprised at what he felt. It was at a public meeting to introduce NASA’s Centennial Challenges and competitors were given the opportunity to examine a pressurized Phase V1 glove to get a feel for its restrictions. It’s currently used by astronauts during their spacewalks but Homer had great difficulty trying to curl his fingers, even though the pressure differential between the inside and the outside of the glove was only four psi (pounds per square inch). This was the very latest in NASA’s space glove technology, but it wasn’t making life easy for space crews.
Homer, a former aerospace engineer, scribbled some notes and highlighted the joints that moved well, and those that didn’t, then he spent the next few months brainstorming ideas. At the time he was heading up a non-profit organization and had been away from the industry for a while. He had no prior knowledge of spacesuit design, his field of expertise was in designing satellites, and so he had to learn everything from scratch. But the competition appealed to him as a test of his skills, and it would be a pet science project that he could pursue in his free time.
When he was ready to build a prototype Homer moved into his workshop. In reality this was his dining room, and he produced a glove on an antique sewing machine with only $500 worth of material. “Innovation is not about big budgets and lots of complicated math. It's a way of knowing and doing things in creative, practical ways that make sense,” Homer told one interviewer.
Homer started off designing something that was radically different from the current glove, believing that this would be the best way to innovate, but it turned out to be a complete failure. The clock was ticking and with less than two months to go to the contest deadline he went back to drawing board and started all over.
The Plus Side of Failure
This failure combined with the rapidly approaching deadline forced him to rethink his approach, and he decided to focus simply on the finger. The inventor reckoned that if he couldn’t get the fingers right there would no point in looking at the rest of the glove.
He designed and constructed around three dozen fingers over the course of a few weeks, and every one was a failure, apart from the last one. But this helped him to refine the fabrication process, and to determine the design elements and materials that were most important.
Homer’s innovation, and the reason he caught the attention of the judges is because of what he did with the finger joints. At each one he created a hinge-like effect by crisscrossing a one-eighth-inch craft ribbon into an “X”. It allows the fingers to flex without feeling any resistance. His final working prototype was ready one day before the contest deadline.
Glove to Glove Contest
To be in with a chance of the winning the prize competitors had to build two prototypes of their designs which had to compete against each other in a head to head, or glove to glove competition. They were also up against the Phase V1 glove. The gloves were subjected to a number of tests which included dexterity tasks performed within a specified time.
The Winning Hand
Homer won the competition hands down and formed a company called Flagsuit LLC to commercialize the technology developed for his winning entry.
The inventor credits a big part of his success to being on friendly terms with failure, and not letting it put him off his stride. In fact it forced him to shy away from conventional thinking which in his own words “opened the door to innovation."
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