Things were looking up in Wattwil, a village in the quiet countryside of Switzerland, in 1985: optrel AG, a small but inventive company, was developing helmets with protective filters that darkened automatically, providing protection from light, metal particles and waste gases — the Swiss firm had become the epitome of globally unique technological innovation.
But when the patents began to expire after a few years, this mid-sized enterprise found itself staring down the barrel of irrelevance; the quality of the products was as exemplary as ever, but the manufacturer had suddenly become replaceable.
Not only was optrel obliged to relinquish its position as a pioneer, it also lost its identity; the SME was bought up by a French industrial safety group that dropped the brand name, and sales figures went into a flat spin. Production would soon have to be moved overseas — and 50 jobs in Wattwil were set to disappear, along with the local manufacturing facility. René and Marco Koch, the sons of the company’s founding member, resolved to have one last shot at saving the enterprise, and bought the business back from its parent group in August 2010. One thing they were sure of — merely restarting production under the old name would not nearly be enough; what optrel needed was an innovation.
The Koch brothers turned to the Zurich-based innovation lab Tribecraft for an outside perspective to help them fight their way back to pole position. Having conducted a user analysis, the lab’s developers soon established there was enormous room for improvement: the rectangular shape of the LCD filter rarely suited the user’s point of focus, resulting in tunnel vision rather than an unimpeded view, and the helmets fitted with hinged masks (intended to be flipped up before and after the actual welding was carried out), were often uncomfortable and unwieldy.
So — how can we adapt the safety mask to suit the needs of the user, wondered the Tribecraft developers. Rather than just increasing the size of the rectangular filter eyeport, they came up with a mask that featured a built-in notch to accommodate the nose, increasing the field of vision to 270% and making the apparatus easy to put on and take off. The proposed design had optrel shaking their heads in disbelief, as Marco Koch recalls: “We were thinking, we were all perfectly aware of the problem, so why on earth didn’t we come up with this ourselves?”
Tribecraft worked with optrel to develop a product that harked back to its core competence, filter technology, while simultaneously setting new standards in comfort. The result? An innovative protective mask housed in an enlarged textile baseball cap that is washable, foldable and easy to handle. When optrel unveiled the product at the "Schweissen und Schneiden" welding and cutting trade fair (the industry’s most important showcase event), it was hailed as a sensation — suddenly, the specialist welders who had always shown an interest in optrel were joined by all the others. New markets began to open up at the same time, with high-voltage electricians making enquiries about an adapted version of the mask; not only had the Swiss firm attracted the attention it had been hoping for, thanks to the mask, it had also repositioned itself as an innovation leader. “We have just recently launched a specialist helmet that takes the safety filter with the nosepiece a step further,” says Marco Koch, adding: “When we brought in Tribecraft, we were hoping for an outside perspective and to hit on a sensation. That’s exactly what we got.”
weldcap hard + bump
use and with shock protection
visor, based on the noseline
concept. Sixfold field of vision
compared to standard helmets.