Design Department students compete to build weeder prototype

LAWRENCE — University of Kansas Department of Design students recently competed against one another in a 14-week-long challenge to invent a new weeder tool.

Garden Weasel, a division of the Faultless Starch/Bon Ami Company, and R2FACT, a Kansas City-based product development firm, sponsored the contest, which called for students to analyze a Garden Weasel WeedPopper and invent a new device that would outperform it and all other competing weeder tools already on the market.

Students were required to build working prototypes of their inventions and to produce computer renderings of the devices, and presented their projects to a panel of judges earlier this month.

The prize for winner John Hall, Salina, was an $800 check from Garden Weasel. John Hall

 “My goal was to remove the root ball without doing too much damage to the lawn, which is a problem with most of the weeding tools now on the market,” Hall said. His invention uses widely spaced clawlike prongs on a long handle that are pushed into the soil by the foot to pry weeds out of the ground.

The first runner-up was Scott Wayland, Lawrence. He said that when a home center customer is considering a purchase that blade design may be the deciding factor.

“Weeders need to have an intimidating, deadly appearance to convince consumers that they will work,” Wayland said.

According to Web Thompson, vice president of specialty products and new product development for Garden Weasel, the market is huge. “If we took one to market (we) would expect it to sell a million units per year, within three years.”

Thompson, along with Steve Pope, the CEO of R2FACT, and Huw Thomas, the visiting professor of design who led the class, judged the entries.  

Pope is a 1991 graduate of KU’s Department of Design and also does product development for Faultless Starch/Bon Ami. He arranged the competition and met with students several times during the semester to give them feedback.

“We’re trying to get the students to think about everything: marketing, production costs, manufacturing and packaging,” Pope said. “These concerns are not addressed by classes that simply redesign products that are already out there and draw pictures of them.”   

Thompson said it is not unusual for Garden Weasel to look at ideas and inventions from many sources. In fact, it has a website where inventors can submit their work.

But he believes that the competition did more than allow his company to look at new solutions to a stubborn problem. “The competition’s purpose was to merge education with the corporate experience,” said Thompson. “And it did this well.”

Thomas said, “The creativity and enthusiasm of the KU students, and the effort they put into everything is great.” Thomas is at KU while taking a semester break from Staffordshire University in Staffordshire, England, where he also teaches design.