Ergonomic solutions began with tinkering in the garage

Ergotech and its founder, Dr. Earl Hagman, offer the kind of story politicians love to tell: born and raised overseas, he came to America to put his problem-solving mind and engineer’s education to work in a place where knowhow and initiative are rewarded.

“I always looked at it as the land of opportunity,” Dr. Hagman said of America. “I would say to this day: This is the land of opportunity.

“From my own experience, I could never have materialized, from a business point of view, what I’ve done here, over in Europe — there were so many regulations and limitations.”

What Dr. Hagman is doing, to cap a long career in engineering and management, is working to build his own business, Ergotech. The firm designs and builds “ergonomic technology” — equipment used to make jobs easier, safer, less demanding on workers’ bodies.

He has an application before the Planning and Zoning Commission to move his plant, which employs about 20 people, from Danbury to a site on Route 7 in Ridgefield. A second public hearing session on the plan, which was scheduled for Tuesday night, has been postponed until Sept. 3.

But the zoning questions are a different matter. This story is about Ergotech, Dr. Hagman, and his vision of a thriving businesses in the growing field of ergonomics.

“It is about creating a humanly friendly work environment, so the human body can rest or relax or be in a normal posture instead of straining your body so that later on excessive use will cause back injury or tendinitis,” Dr. Hagman said.

Ergotech was started in 2000 when Dr. Hagman left Curtis Instruments, and now provides ergonomic equipment to clients ranging from the U.S. Army to Disney theme parks. Mostly, its equipment is used in manufacturing.

“We are very diversified. We have six product families and each one serves a particular purpose in the field of factory ergonomic,” Dr. Hagman said.

“We’re involved with Sikorsky and Pratt & Whitney and the U.S. government.”

Last year the firm got a contract from the U.S. Army for 60 of its three-axis work positioners, to be used by helicopter maintenance technicians.

“That’s ongoing, it has expanded. Started at $2.1 million. We are well past that. We have more coming,” he said.

“We help people like Lockheed. We’re helping them with assembly of components for the fighter jets. Northrop Grumman down in Florida. They make components for the aircraft industry.

“So we are defense,” he said. “Cirque du Soleil, which is entertainment, to joy rides, Disney,” he said.

“Disney has needs to service or overhaul all its roller coaster rides. It’s a big fiberglass shroud with all the mechanism underneath.

“What they used to do is take two sawhorses, lie it on its back, and work on it. Now they use our manipulators, which allow it to be turned upside-down, and also you can rotate it to any angle. That makes every part accessible without straining your body.”

The cars for the theme park rides were “on the order of 1,000 pounds, 1,500 pounds,” he said. “ You can’t, in my judgment, put it on a sawhorse — it’s not safe.

“We also do masks,” he said. “Goofy and Minnie and Mickey, the people who are walking around the entertainment park. These are hand painted. If you envision how they did if before, you held it with your left hand, and painted with your right hand.”

Ergonomically designed gadgets to hold the masks make painting much easier.

“Now they can manipulate it, put it at an angle, and it’s stationary. And when they want to, rotate it to the next position.”

Similarly, the firm’s work with Cirque du Soleil involves easing the fabrication of the elaborate headdresses of performers wear.

“It’s just simple straightforward solutions that we’ve done for companies that everyone recognizes.”

The products can be simple: Ergotech’s “multi-directional conveyor rollers” allow heavy objects to be easily moved and repositioned by workers. Some are more complex. The “ergo control family of positioners,” used in tasks like welding, grinding and assembly, have computerized controls that can be programmed to fit various specific jobs and the needs of different operators.

“I think we have seven patents now,” Dr. Hagman said.

He is the patent-holder “because I’m the one that conceptualized it,” he said.

‘A lot of these ideas are mine. I have a team to help realize the idea into a product. I have engineers and I have production people.”

To solve clients’ work problems, Ergotech seeks to understand what the customer does, and how it’s done.

“We need to understand the application, and then be able to see which or our products would best suit their needs, and if any customization is required, relate that to our people in engineering here, and relate that to the people on the floor.”

The firm’s total staff is about 30 people, he said, 20 in the U.S. at the Danbury plant he’s trying to move to Ridgefield, and about 10 people at the firm’s overseas plant in Sweden, which primarily serves the European market.

“We’re a small player. But we are going to be much bigger,” he said.

Dr., Hagman has extensive education, which began in Sweden, where he grew up. He went to Lund University there and also Uppsala University.

“I studied an awful lot,” he said. “But I started out being an engineer and I still say I am an engineer. But I have my Ph.D. in ergonomy, in human health — some people call it occupational health.

In this country he got an MBA and also studied law at nearby Pace University, and he got his Ph.D. in occupational health at Northeastern.

Before going off on his own he worked for a number of firms, with a long stint at Curtis Instruments in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., leading up to the birth of Ergotech in 2000.

“I was really part of taking it from a small family-owned business to a well-recognized company, globally,” he said of Curtis Instruments.

“And I was fiddling with these concepts in the background.”

The concepts he was fiddling around with are the ergonomic solutions that are the basis of Ergotech’s products.

Dr. Hagman’s interest in ergonomics began with the instinct to solve simple problems he encountered personally, as a guy tinkering with things in his garage.

“I’m a tall slender guy and I have a weak back,” he said.

“I’m a very handy guy — always working on things. I got tired of always having the bench too low, and always holding the part and straining my body to do what I was doing. I said ‘There must be an easier way to do this!’ ”

The solutions he came up with for his own work problems formed the basis for lines of products useful in various industries.

“They’re all grown out of needs,” he said. “It started with personal needs and now it’s big companies’ needs.”

It’s satisfying work.

“That’s what I do every day. When we ship a product, I know I’m going to help one or more people in some way or another to make life better. In this case, it’s their work life — but we all spend so much time at work, it’s important your work environment is fitted for you.

“Besides business, you want to do something that is warm,” he said, “and it’s helping people, and making life better.”

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