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Bump, ’bots and balloon swords: from Blyth to the world

Ward Hadaway catches up with Blyth-based robotics firm Tharsus about how the pandemic inspired their latest innovation, Bump.

As part of its ongoing series Inspiring Growth in conjunction with Ward Hadaway, The Journal talks to some of the region’s fastest growing businesses, shining a light on their incredible successes. This week we catch up with Blyth-based robotics firm Tharsus about how the pandemic inspired their latest innovation, Bump.

There’s no denying it. Social distancing is hard to do. Wash our hands? Yes. Wear a face covering? OK. Distance ourselves indefinitely from our friends, family and colleagues? Hmmm. It goes against the grain of our instinctive human nature.

But this is the world in which we find ourselves. And for many businesses the consequences of not distancing appropriately go beyond health harms. If sections of our workforce are infected and have to isolate – or worse still are hospitalised – this can quickly and easily undermine operations with devastating effects.

How to solve the problem of effective social distancing was the challenge that Blyth’s Tharsus undertook in March when ‘lockdown one’ began. Operating across three sites in the Northumberland town, the wisp of a solution germinated as the engineering firm grappled with how to keep its workforce safe and secure, and remain the requisite two metres apart on site.

“It began with balloon swords,” laughs chief technology officer Dave Swan, explaining how Bump – wearable tech that lets the user know when they’ve got too close – took shape.

“We were asking our teams to stay apart, but it was new, and it was hard because it’s not our human nature. We’d just reconfigured our spaces to encourage closer working and collaboration and now we had to say, ‘no, please stay apart.’”

“So we messed around with balloon swords – the idea being that if you each extended one to touch the other you were two metres apart. Any closer was too close. The novelty wore off after a couple of days and we were left scratching our heads. How could we create behaviour change and help keep people safe, without being dictatorial about it?”

Dave and a small team set about finding a solution. The company had never made wearable tech before – “we’re machine builders” – but that didn’t stop them reaching out to their network around the globe to help find a solution.

“We didn’t have all the answers in Blyth,” Dave continues. “So we talked to our contacts, to academics, specialists in moulding, radio frequency technology, firmware, electronics and marketing and we created a consortium of people who could rise to this challenge.”

At one point Tharsus and their partners were working around the clock on the project – one team in Blyth and one in New Zealand, handing over to the other at the end of each day so work could continue. In 12 weeks they had a solution – Bump. By October Bump was being deployed at the scaled back London Marathon.

When Dave and the Tharsus team embarked on the project there was no roadmap, but Bump served as a rallying point, a project the team could get behind that gave them purpose during uncertain times. Its commercial value is as yet undetermined but it’s worth is so much more than the product itself.

“Creating Bump gave us all a focus, and a focus for good. It was born out of a need within the business to keep our people safe, but it became a project we could all work on together and believe in. It reminded us of all the things we are good at as a team. And it helped broaden our network – and good things have come out of that alone.”

Jamie Gamble is a partner in the employment team at Ward Hadaway. He said; “People are the lifeblood of any organisation and learning how to harness their talents, provide purpose and clear direction and keep everyone engaged is key. This includes not only your employees but your wider network.

“What is interesting about the Tharsus story during lockdown is that they have used Bump as a focus for their workforce. They have communicated its purpose clearly and asked the team to support its development, created opportunities and encouraged innovation. They have empowered their people and their business partners with positive effects.”

So what next for Tharsus? Dave concludes; “It’s about that fine balance between being true to our engineering and manufacturing roots, whilst remaining open, agile and innovative. It’s about keeping that entrepreneurial spirit alive within an established business, keeping the energy high. As long as we have forward motion, that will enable growth and we’ll be in a good place, whatever the future holds.”

To speak to Jamie Gamble about your employment needs contact jamie.gamble@wardhadaway.com.

For more information on Bump visit www.tharsus.co.uk

This article originally appears in The Journal on 25 November 2020.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

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