Matt Coleman and John Cromie created an innovative product that addressed the universal problem of weight distribution found on the duty belt. This problem leads to back pain and may cause the officer to retire earlier due to complications associated with this pain. We caught up with John Cromie to give us more background on the Zero G plate and how it answered the problems related to the duty belt.
What made you look at the officers duty belt as a problem worth solving?
Credit for the idea goes to my partner, Matt Coleman. During a product design class at Stanford, he was assigned to embed himself with a group of people he knew little about, study their day to day activities, and then design a product that would improve their lives. Matt decided that police officers were a group of people he wanted to understand better, and so he got connected with the Stanford PD. It did not take long to realize that the duty belt was a nearly universal problem. As a product designer, when you see potential customers who are actually willing to try and solve the problem themselves (in this case by sewing pads to the inside of the belt), you have hit product design gold. Within the time constraints of a 10-week quarter, Matt designed and prototyped a very futuristic style duty belt, custom tailored to the officer he partnered with. As is typical with academic projects, when the quarter ended, so did the project. A few months later, I was doing some entrepreneurial soul searching (or naval gazing, depending on your attitude towards personal reflection) trying to find where best to apply my energies. I asked Matt if I could explore the project, and if I got anywhere, we would partner back up and make something happen. I launched into the project as an adventure, but it quickly became a passion. As I continued to research the work that had been done, I realized how little true innovation had been done to help what I viewed as a very solvable problem.
Describe how you made the first prototypes and how you went about testing them?
Our first objective was actually to make an entirely new belt system, so Matt’s first prototype was an extremely complicated assembly of laser-cut fabrics. During the early phases of my investigation, the focus was on going back and learning how the body carried weight on the hips and perceived comfort. We spent a lot of time exploring a number of avenues that turned out to be dead ends, but as so often happens in life, the lessons learned stuck with me and take me to new places. In this case, the real insight was the hard-shell pressure distribution concept. Intuitively, I knew it was a sound idea, but how do you get a hard shell that is shaped like part of your body? Make a mold of your body. It was simultaneously one of the more absurd things I had ever conceived, and yet it was by far the simplest and fastest option for getting the shape I needed. Officers know as well as anyone that we often must submit to what life demands of us, so I went out to the garage dressed in spandex and cut two boxes so they could be secured around me from belly-button to upper thigh. I wrapped myself in plastic wrap and secured the boxes around my hips and to one another and then shot expanding foam into the box all around my hips and let it fill the box. After a little gap filling with epoxy and some sanding, I had two accurate molds of my own hips. This enabled me to make my first composite plate prototypes.
The first time I tested those plates, I knew I had something. They were taken from the hips of a 6’1″ 220 lb male (me), and tested on a 5’6″ 120lb female. That it worked at all blew me away and showed me that it would be possible to make a shape that would work for a broad range of people. After that, we used CNC mills to cut molds of different shapes, and then I went around to the local police stations and had officers try them. We spend the next year refining the shape and learning how to integrate the plates with the duty belt.
What kind of response have you heard from those who have been long term testing these in the field?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The most common thing we heard by first time users was, “It feels like I’m not wearing my belt.” Its really impossible to describe how good it felt to hear that. Not just that the pain was reduced, but that it felt like the burden was gone altogether. That could only be trumped in my mind by the handful of responses that said, “These saved my career.” Jeff Taylor was our first user at Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (one of our most helpful partners) who was about 2 months away from having the spinal fusion surgery that sidelines so many LEOs. He was already on light-duty due to his inability to wear a fully loaded belt when he received his prototype set of plates in 2011. He was able to immediately go back to full duty, and never had the surgery. Jeff’s story echos that of a handful of other users who were on the verge of being medically retired when they received their prototype plates.
I always asked testers to check in at the end of the second week of 4 straight 12 hr shifts. How they feel when they first put on the plates is interesting, but what I cared about was the difference they would make over the longer term, and the officer generally needed a day or two to get them set up just right. The response was incredible. Officers were talking about going home pain free, and not having to hike their belt up every time they get out of their car and having an easier time taking their belt on and off. They also raved about how secure their gear felt, and how smooth their weapon draw was now that the belt had a solid mount. Mostly, testers just don’t want to give them back.
How long have these been in development? Why such the long wait?
The class where Matt hatched the original idea occurred in 2008, and I took over in 2009. By late 2009 we understood the science behind the plates, but it took Matt and I well into 2010 to refine them into something resembling a product. This was mostly due to Matt being a full-time student and me having a full-time job. We launched Atlas Load bearing Equipment in 2010 and sold the Gen 1 and then Gen 2 TacPlates (as they were called then) up through 2012. The volumes were small, and I was making them by hand in my garage. This was when we brought in our 3rd partner, Michael Bakonyi, to help with manufacturing, and during that time we sold several hundred units. This effectively functioned as a “to-market prototype” and allowed us to gain incredible knowledge about how the plates behaved, performed and interacted with the customer.
It was at this time that we found 5.11 and it became immediately apparent that this type of disruptive innovation was absolutely at home in 5.11’s portfolio. It also gave us an opportunity to really finish the design, clean up the outstanding issues, and bring in a higher volume manufacturing process to improve quality and reduce cost.
The time from 2013 til now, was really about going after the details and making sure it was just right. While carbon fiber is a well known material, its difficult to do well and the Zero-G Plates pose some unique challenges. It also gave us a chance to do a whole new round of user testing in a more controlled environment. 5.11 has extensive relationship in the law enforcement community and running user trials is something they do for every other product line, so we naturally took the opportunity to let 5.11 gain the first-hand user impressions that Matt, Michael and I had during the early years. I am extremely proud of the Zero-G Plates, and while the wait can be frustrating, every setback we experienced made the product better. I think its important for an officer to know that when he buys the Zero-G plates, he is buying a 3rd generation product that has been field tested by nearly 1000 different officers for multiple years, many of whom paid significantly more than the current retail price, and decided to keep the product because it was worth that price. This year at Shot Show, I had a sentiment validated when a former Tier 1 operator now with 5.11 took me aside and said, “Two years ago when you first introduced these to us, I admit I didn’t get it and didn’t think it was anything special. But I thought I would check it out, so I took a few sets downrange to try out and to let the guys use. Now I get it, and to be honest, I think this is the most innovative thing I’ve seen for a long time.”
Before the Zero G plates what other engineering problems have you tried to tackle?
The Zero G Plates were the first attempt to engineer something that would really make a difference for someone else. Prior to that, the primary criteria for project selection was the “awesome” scale. That generally leads to things like trebuchets, air cannons and battleaxes (that I manage to pass 2 out of 3 of those off as class projects was a much greater challenge than the engineering). I’m also a huge airplane nut. I’ve been building and flying RC airplanes for about 15 years, and in fact, one of the initial reasons I started considering a project like the Zero G Plates was as a way to fund my more grand aircraft ideas. In retrospect, its almost amusing to see how small my goal was before I realized how great the need was for an innovation in the duty belt space.
Professionally, the Zero G Plate project has overlapped my time at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company and now Google [X], both of which have provided me with significant aerospace challenges on a much grander scale. But its fun to balance these colossal projects with a more personal touch like the Zero G Plates, where I can help specific people.
What was the most challenging part in creating the Zero G plates?
Letting go of the “common knowledge” regarding comfort, weight bearing on the hips, and the problems with duty belts was by far the hardest part. The reason rival solutions like the hidden suspenders or padded belts fall short is that they are built on what is generally believed about those subjects. The key moments for me were when I challenged what I thought I knew about comfort and load bearing. By stripping away these bad ideas, I was able to explore what was true, and that led me to a whole new space, and the result is a revolutionized experience for the user through a pair of very simple carbon plates.
The difficult part going forward is that those wrong assumptions are still out there and widely held. I had to develop sound bites specifically to target those false narratives just in order to get people to listen. In a way, I went so far outside the box, that when I stopped and looked around, I was all alone. A classic example is the idea that weight on the hips is bad. Countless officers have dismissed the plates telling me, “nah, we’re just going to get the tactical vests and get all the weight off the hips and up on the chest where it belongs.” The sad thing is, stock duty belts are so bad that this isn’t a horrible idea. But taking something off your hips because its hurting your back, and then putting it on your chest so all the weight goes through your spine doesn’t sound logical. The solution to incorrectly loaded hips is not to load the spine; its to correctly load the hips. Skip the suspenders; those things are a pain and a tactical liability. Strap a pair of Zero G Plates on your belt, and you have completely altered the physical interaction between the belt and your body. Education will be the hardest challenge ahead of the Zero G Plates. Fortunately, you can change an officer’s life just by saying, “Try these on.”