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business models, strategies and technologies

Manikins and the Body Mass Index paradigm

What happens when the humans involved in commercial products and services undergo serious change?

Most businesses – and the products and services they provide – involve varying mixtures of people and technology, interacting in myriads of ways. The mainstream narrative usually focuses on one end, where technology changes and develops, with all the effects and benefits this provides for the human masters and their hoped-for customers..

But what happens when the humans involved themselves undergo serious change?

The obesity explosion

A quarter of British adults are now classified as obese, meaning they have a Body Mass Index of 30 or more. Since 1993, the number of morbidly obese Britons – those with a BMI of 40 or more – has skyrocketed from 350,000 to 1.5 million, according to a House of Commons Library briefing paper published in early 2018. Broadly speaking, the same development is taking place all over the world.

But how many mainstream companies have factored this key human variable into the future of their products and services?

Obesity as opportunity

UK company Ruth Lee Ltd. is one example of companies that have seen this as a business opportunity. Ruth Lee has expanded its range of rescue-training manikins, which are used in emergency services training worldwide. The company now provides “bariatric” manikins that weigh as much as 250 kg, filled with a core of stone and steel ball bearings so that the dummy feels the same weight as a real person. This makes moving and rescue training conditions more realistic.

Manikins are similar to mannequins in that they are human-shaped models used to simulate the human body. Mannequins are used to show off clothing, whereas manikins are used to help simulate medical, surgical or clinical scenarios. They’re usually used by emergency services of all kinds, for training and practice in a wide range of situations in which emergencies can arise and in which it can be difficult to lift or move overweight or obese people.

The company’s customers apparently include everything from hospitals and funeral parlours to cruise ships and airlines, and the new full-weight models are apparently essential for a wide range of organisations and emergency services to be able to undertake realistic training for dealing with heavy and obese members of the public, in situations where time can be crucial.

From manikin to market perceptions

Obesity is only one element in changing demographic profiles. Many countries are having to deal with combinations of ageing populations and expectations about life quality, while also being confronted with large numbers of diseases and ailments related to lifestyles and nutrition.

These markets and these needs have traditionally been pigeon-holed and somewhat marginalised with monikers that include health care, dealing with disabilities and living aids. Yes, there are successful companies built up to meet these specific needs (Active Hands in the UK and Guldmann in Denmark are a couple of examples), but they can only really ever deal with relatively small components of our overall populations. What would happen if the obesity paradigm and its many ramifications were (visibly) included in mainstream business thinking? If they became mainstream instead of marginalised?

For example, so many companies blithely write “service and maintenance” as part of their capabilities, but perhaps forget to take into consideration the growing girth and declining dexterity of the actual people whose job it is to carry out these functions. Rounder, heavier and less agile employees will need very different design and access paradigms in order to be able to get at and into machinery and equipment of all kinds to carry out the necessary inspections, maintenance and service. Suddenly the human element becomes a limitation on commercial efficiency.

This kind of thing is probably going on behind the scenes in many successful business models, but it’s rarely made visible as a design, usability and comfort parameter. It seems like a market opportunity waiting to be built.