Building A Better Umbrella

The Wall Street Journal asks why is it so hard to design an umbrella that won’t collapse or flip inside out?

After a rainstorm, the scene in almost any city is the same–dozens of umbrella carcasses lying broken along sidewalks and streets.

It seems that most models can barely keep you dry during the sprint from the office door to the car door without falling apart or–if a big wind comes along–flipping inside out. Umbrellas have been around for 3,000 years, says Totes Istoner Corp., the nation’s largest importer. So why is it so hard to find a decent one?

An umbrella is surprisingly complicated: It contains more than 150 parts. And each one can break. The small, foldable umbrellas that most consumers prefer are even flimsier, since they contain more components. Manufacturers say they have had a tough time innovating because most people aren’t willing to pay much for an umbrella. The average price people spend is only $6, says research firm NPD Group.

The Holy Grail of umbrella design is a sturdy, small, folding device. Smaller umbrellas generally have three or four ligaments in a single rib, which enables them to fold down to size. Unfortunately, that creates more joints where the umbrella can break.

Some companies are taking technology initially developed for golf umbrellas–massive domes that average about 60 inches across–and adapting them to smaller styles. Years ago, umbrella designers figured out how to make a golf umbrella stronger through vented canopies–where one canopy sits on top of another to create a slit through which pressure from the wind that would otherwise cause the umbrella to invert is released. Now, several companies have released smaller styles with vented canopies.

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Photo by WSJ.

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