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The bottom line (pg. 2)

August 25, 2008: 12:25 PM EDT

And then another piece of the puzzle fell into place. The moms interviewed kept talking about how important the comfort of their baby was to them. "As we look at older babies," says Nelson, "they don't have as much of that nurturing comfort need [as the newborns]. It's more of a supportive comfort, like 'I want to be here for you while you're learning to do things for yourself.' Mom would say, 'I really like seeing my baby's face light up when he doesn't have a diaper on,' and we said, 'Ah, that's where our insight is!' That was our no-diaper insight, in terms of how we could create that feeling for them even when they have a diaper on."

***

With that goal in mind, Lauri Charles, research manager for infant care R&D, assembled her team to generate ideas for what to alter in the diaper to create that no-diaper feel. Her biggest inspiration? Children's underwear. "When we started looking at it, we said, 'This is a very comfortable product.' Well, what makes it a comfortable product?" Charles grabs a pair of underwear that's been cut in half at the waistband and laid flat onto a board to demonstrate: "Look at its cuts along the body lines. It fits around the legs, especially at points where it moves. Look how close this is," she says, pointing to the narrow crotch area. "It needs to fit close to the body, not hang down, and it needs to be narrow to be close."

A tailor cutting a suit can take measurements of one person and make everything fit. A diaper designer has to cover as many different body types as possible and still make sure the diaper works - without, of course, getting specific feedback from the wearer. In the past K-C researchers would hand-make several diapers of varying dimensions to try them out on real babies. This time, though, they were able to use computer-generated models of babies to simulate virtual diapers. The measurements are from enormous databases gathered by the garment industry; K-C derived others by bringing babies in and literally scanning them head to toe. Lauri Charles shows me the computer models: Each is the silhouette of a baby's body from bellybutton to mid-thigh, with blue, red, yellow, and green splotches distributed like a Doppler weather map, showing the amount of pressure the virtual diaper is applying to the skin at every spot. Red shows where the diaper pinches too much, which might lead to skin irritation and discomfort; blue shows where it might be too loose, leading to leaks. The models can move their legs too, and the pressure points change colors with them. It's revolutionary for one simple reason: "Right now you put a diaper on a child and you can't tell what's happening," says Charles. "Well, with our model, we can literally see the pressure points."

After arriving at different design possibilities, all of them driving toward a thinner diaper with a closer fit, it was time to test on figurines designed to look and act like babies. In a testing room at K-C's Neenah offices, rows of baby mannequins are lined up like robots awaiting orders. They can walk, crawl, sit, and - most important - deliver an "insult" to the diaper, as the lingo goes, just like a baby. Each is hooked to a device that can deliver liquid through one of two distinctly positioned tubes, one to represent a girl, the other a boy. Their legs and stomachs vary in size, just like real babies', and they also feel like the real thing: They're made from a specially designed silicone meant to mimic the fleshiness of human skin.

As the design team did testing on these baby models, they also had to keep checking in with the manufacturing side of K-C's operations to make sure any new design, with its curvier lines, could actually be produced at high speed on assembly machines. For the new product to reach the market, the technology behind those machines had to match the design advances, beat for beat. The right materials also had to be available at an appropriate price. On this count, it helped that K-C, with its paper mill background, has the largest patent estate of nonwoven materials in the world.

For the design team the component that proved the most difficult was narrowing the crotch area - the thinnest part of the diaper's dogbone shape, where the insult lands. Charles and her team had tried to do so in past years without success. This time it worked. How? Where the insult meets the diaper, an intake layer especially developed by K-C now catches it more rapidly, while superabsorbent polymers just below begin to absorb everything. The new design packs in more polymers, which are also 10% more absorbent. As a result, the width of the absorbent was reduced 16% to 28%, depending on the diaper's size, creating that closer fit the team had set out to accomplish. Other major changes included adding stretch to the back waistband so that there was continuous flexibility between the tabs and through the area that hits the small of the back. Another small touch: Huggies made its Disney-licensed Winnie the Pooh graphics more active, since it noticed in consumer research that mothers often used the cartoon pictures on another diaper to distract the baby during a diaper change.

***

Mission accomplished. But what happens to a premium product in a recession? If even affluent customers have become more price-sensitive, that could slow the growth trajectory for Huggies Supreme Natural Fit. Because of rising costs of materials and energy, Kimberly-Clark raised prices 5% in February and then 7% in July. In the most recent quarterly financial results, diaper revenues at Kimberly-Clark were up 10%, and Thibault says the rise came from both the price increase and more unit sales.

Yet K-C can't just sit back and count its profits. Like any other technology-driven industry, the diaper business is such that any time a development hits the top of the market, like Velcro tabs in the 1990s, it has a way of quickly trickling down to every other model, like a diaper arms race. So Kimberly-Clark has to keep moving to come up with the next new thing. After all, there are people just like them in Cincinnati, working for P&G, and they, too, are on the relentless march to making the ultimate disposable diaper.  To top of page

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