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AIRFLEX GLOVE

DESIGNER: DESIGN CONTINUUM

The baseball glove is hardly a product begging for innovation. It has looked the same for decades, and it works just fine. Ask any kid.

But Spalding Sports Worldwide has given the old standby a fresh look and feel, actually making it better. Looking to boost its share of a market dominated by Rawlings Sporting Goods and Wilson Sporting Goods, Spalding is using an idea popularized by Reebok International Ltd.'s Pump sneaker and is putting inflatable bladders inside the baseball glove. Just as the Pump uses air to mold sneakers to your feet, Spalding's AirFlex uses air to wrap the glove around your hand for a tighter fit.

The AirFlex won a gold prize in the IDEA's sporting and fitness product category because "the glove is almost a perfect example of what industrial design is all about," says Fritz Mayhew, a judge in the category. "It's new technology that's been applied in a clever way to a product that's been around for a long time."

Actually, the technology has also been around for a while. And the way it wound up in a baseball glove almost scuttled the whole project. In the late 1980s, Boston-based Design Continuum Inc. had refined the medical technology used to make inflatable splints to transform the old Reebok sneaker into the high-tech Pump. But Reebok officials were furious when they learned that Design Continuum was applying the Pump technology to a baseball glove. Reebok sued Design Continuum, claiming it had illegally shared trade secrets with Spalding in violation of their design contract for the Pump. Reebok tried to get a court order banning AirFlex from the market.

CHILLING EFFECT. From Reebok's point of view, the case represented the protection of its franchise. Pump sneakers produced $500 million in sales during their first 18 months on the market--powerful testimony to the rewards of good product design. Reebok was negotiating to license the Pump to other sporting goods companies, including Spalding rival Rawlings. It worried that if Design Continuum was allowed to design an inflatable glove, its prospective licensees would decide they could build inflatable products without paying royalties.

The case threatened the existence of Design Continuum. It also scared designers around the country, who worried that a Reebok victory could have a chilling effect on their work.

In the end, Reebok and Design Continuum quietly settled the suit out of court. While neither side will discuss the settlement, Reebok obviously did not prevail. The AirFlex is widely available in sporting-goods stores, and Design Continuum--its reputation intact--plans to use air-inflation technology in other products. Reebok, meanwhile, says it hasn't lost any licensees. Rawlings, Bell Helmets, and Canada's CCM hockey skates will soon incorporate Pump technology. The AirFlex baseball glove is retailing at a hefty $110, just about the price of a pair of Pump sneakers.Geoffrey Smith in Boston


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