PROJECT: ELECTRONIC REFEREE FLAG
A 200% increase in
sales within a year
Historically, A+H International was a distribution company selling professional and semi-professional equipment for football referees in the UK. The owner is an ex-professional referee with in-depth knowledge of this particular market. The company had no experience of designing or manufacturing their own products
but based on their sales experience, identified an opportunity for developing a superior system that enables linesmen to communicate with referees electronically (in addition to the conventional flag raising).
“The UK entered a major recession when the project started and money was tight. The new flag system has changed our business philosophy and provided a platform for an exciting future”
JEFF PETTITT M.D. TOUCHLINE FLAGS
A key business objective was to change the profile of the company and its brand perception from a supplier of other people’s commodity products to an expert in market requirements and a solution provider.
The brief was to design a system that overcame inherent problems exhibited by products already in the market, without increasing the cost to customers.
A linesman flag with the ability to signal ‘an event’ wirelessly to the referee via switches on the handle (whilst using the flag as a visual signal).
A referee unit, worn on the arm, to receive the signal translated into sound and vibration.
Switching components on the existing flags failed due to extreme pressure when linesmen were in stressful situations. In addition, the linesman’s action wasn’t always translated into a signal to the referee.
The design of the existing flag handles allowed them to rotate in use, creating problems of switch alignment with thumb or forefingers.
The flag stick broke due to stresses at the handle connection point (high leverage forces).
Difficulties in removing or replacing the flags (which need washing!).
Water ingress into both linesman and referee products, causing electronic failure.
Inadequate status feedback for linesmen and referees. Difficulties in changing batteries.
A+H International (Touchline Flags) was not an international player despite its name. It was however an expert in its field and had dealt with product failures of existing products supplied to customers over a number of years.
In addition, it had strong links with the users of its products and had been collecting important customer insights over time before embarking on a design and development project which would change its positioning from a distributor to a systems manufacturer. This was also in the context of technology changes in sport where, for example, ‘Hawkeye’ has been accepted in most tennis tournaments and video playback in rugby is seen by many to enhance the game.
The design programme started with input from professional referees, specifying what was needed to produce the best system in the world. Initial concepts were discussed with a number of stakeholders and budget costings for different assembly options were obtained. Project funding was always an issue and mid-way through the development it was decided to produce a low cost non-electronic version of the flag with a similar external appearance to create income and to expand the potential market
by introducing the concept of ‘trading up’ to the electronic units when available. Simulations, prototyping and consumer role playing and testing was always an important part of the planned approach and initial solid models were produced followed by a number of fully working prototypes, tested in amateur league football matches. Following design revisions and improvements, production injection moulding tooling was commissioned.
“When you’re working
in the Premier League it
is important that you
have total trust in the
equipment you’re using.
The new Touchline Flags
give you that trust”
HOWARD WEBB, WORLD CUP FINAL REFEREE 2010
Key features & benefits
The flag unit is moulded in clear polycarbonate with an overmoulded ‘soft feel’ elastomer (a). Each half is identical (b), reducing tooling cost and the external material is designed to form a seal down both sides of the handle (c), providing a highly cost effective solution.
The handle is ergonomically designed to avoid slippage, providing long term comfort and intuitive switch activation.
The internal switch mechanism is custom designed from two identical mouldings to allow input from either external switch area to activate a single PCB switch (d). This avoids multiple inputs and also avoids damage to the switch by acting as a ‘shock absorber’.
The soft overmoulding has thinned sections which act as membranes for activating the internal switch assembly (e). This ensures complete sealing and a large tactile switch area on both sides of the handle.
The clear polycarbonate moulding incorporates LED light pipes (f) providing good sealing and reduced assembly costs. These, plus a vibrating device provide both tactile and visual feedback that the wireless system is operating.
The wireless antenna is centred in a moulded internal assembly (g), fitting inside the flag stick to improve the structural strength and product reliability (h).
Flags are easily removed and replaced for washing with a novel ‘push and twist’ end piece – marketed as ‘Touchlok’ (i).
Batteries are easily changed via a screw cap (j) and fit inside a chamber sealed with an ‘O’ ring at the end of the handle (k).
The compact referee’s receiving unit (pager) is worn on the upper arm and held in place by a flexible armband. The curved rear surface is more comfortable in use (l). The front curves to facilitate wearing under clothing.
The referee is alerted by ‘sound’ and ‘vibration’ – the vibration component is positioned in direct contact to the arm in a raised pod (m).
The front cover is clipped in place (n) and has an ‘O’ ring seal (o) – easily removed for battery changing and device programming. Switch activation is via integrally moulded keys providing a value engineered solution.