Impact-absorbent tiles could become a safety feature in rest homes.
The world is going grey and Acma Industries hopes its business will grow in tandem. The Upper Hutt company's new flooring product, Kradal, has caught the attention of Europeans and Americans seeking better ways to manage risks for their elderly.
John Bowmar, a director of the company, is hoping Kradal will go down particularly well in Sweden, where the product - designed to reduce falls and minimise any impact - is being tested.
Sweden apparently has the highest rate of falls amongst its elderly and acceptance from the Swedes would give the company a big kick-start as it launches into full-scale production.
Bowmar is keeping his fingers crossed the product will be endorsed officially as suitable for rest homes. The Swedes got wind of Acma's product through a German, Dr Clemens Becker from Robert-Bosch-Hospital. Becker had attended a seminar in Stuttgart given by University of Otago Associate Professor Clare Robertson.
Robertson is a guru on fall-prevention programmes for the elderly, having designed, with Professor John Campbell, and tested three successful fall-prevention programmes. The Otago Exercise Programme is now being used worldwide.
Kradal tiles have also been installed and tested at three sites in the United States, two in Auckland, two in Kapiti, as well as in Lower and Upper Hutt.
Acma's latest product development follows years of research. The company, founded in 1978 by John's father, Alan Bowmar, once manufactured automotive components. Over the years it evolved into producing polyurethane material that went into making train seats and frames.
"When the car market went away, we had to become innovative. We had a lot of practice with lots of different things - lots of chemistry with different exotic properties," Bowmar says.
The company already supplies polyurethane-moulded products used by Fisher & Paykel Healthcare, hospital bed maker Howard Wright and Australian transport companies.
"As part of our strategy for growth, we wanted to develop a product of our own and we were working with Clare Robertson on the possibility of making hip protectors."
Robertson's advice was that the device would work only if people wore it. "The idea then was: 'Why not a passive device?' So we started researching the idea for floor tiles."
Robertson believes managers, health professionals and rest home and hospital staff will appreciate the new technology.
"They are well aware of the high rate of falls in their older residents and patients, plus the serious injuries that result."
Safety flooring has many advantages, including its non-intrusive nature. It also offers a long-term approach to injury prevention, which can be enforced through regulation.
"In the case of safety flooring, this has been shown to be cost saving and the new flooring is more cost effective than hip protectors aimed at reducing hip fractures," Robertson says.
Installed properly, Kradal tiles can absorb up to 70 per cent of a fall's impact, the company claims. The tiles, only 12mm thick, are fully recyclable.
"A lot of development ... has gone into the chemistry of the product," says Bowmar.
Kradal has already won recognition. In 2008, it won the Discovering Gold Award at the Wellington Region Gold Awards. It was also a finalist in the Centre for the Polyurethane Industry's 2008 Polyurethane Innovation Award.
The company has been slowly exploring the market for equipment manufacturers and has set up pilot plants focusing on how to automate production.
Bowmar says the challenge is to ensure the company can meet customer requirements while not over-investing in plant or equipment, should production need to be expanded.
Sometime in the near future, the company has to decide the most effective way to market its technology.
It has been talking to an agent in the US about licensing the product, given that the company doesn't have huge resources for sales and distribution.
"We employ 100 people - we are a medium-sized company. The flooring market in the US is very large. The other options are whether we find a partner in the US or Australia, or whether we list Kradal separately."
Bowmar has a natural brain for science. He graduated with a science degree from Victoria University in physics and mathematics and also has a post-graduate diploma in management.
He is positive about how things are going. "The tiles are a good niche product that can be sold globally. The crucial thing is to figure different ways of extracting the value of this technology in New Zealand."
Bowmar would like to keep manufacturing the tiles in New Zealand, given that they can be easily packed and shipped offshore. However, he says the ultimate test of a product's success is whether it meets a need - not how clever the technology is.