Closing the door on noisy hinges
Winners of the European Inventor Award 2013 in the category Industry
Claus Hämmerle and Klaus Brüstle, inventors of the Blumotion dampening system
Since the first door slammed thousands of years ago, few advances in hinge technology measure up to the damper system for cabinet hinges patented by Austrian inventors Claus Hämmerle and Klaus Brüstle.
Known as Blumotion, this clever gadget quietly guides cabinet doors or drawers shut. The soft-closing feature has been integrated into nearly every type of furniture in an industry worth €126 billion in Europe alone.
Visitors to the Austrian kitchen manufacturer Julius Blum GmbH's headquarters in a corner of picturesque Vorarlberg, Austria, can still get a glimpse of the craftsmanship for which its founder, Julius Blum, is celebrated.
Horseshoes hammered out to prevent the town's great steeds from slipping on icy alpine roads are on prominent display, as are his first metal door handles.
Those modest operations have since grown into a multi-billion Euro enterprise with more than 5,000 employees, most of them in Vorarlberg where Blum is the largest employer. Today, Blum has carved out a comfortable niche for itself in the global furniture market - to the tune of €1.26 billion a year as a leading producer of cabinet hinges.
A household name
Julius Blum's original emphasis on form and function still lives on at the company. Thanks to inventors Claus Hämmerle and Klaus Brüstle's ingenious concept - a tiny damper system that facilitates the smooth closing of furniture doors, drawers and wall cabinets - ripples from this family-run business quickly swell into tidal waves in the market.
"Our dampening system was really efficient and smooth from the first day," said Gerhard Blum, the company's CEO. "This was one reason for the enormous market success."
Today, Blumotion is omnipresent, able to be incorporated into virtually any kind of furniture imaginable. The name has become an industry standard, much like Kleenex or Xerox, and is even used by laymen to describe hinges produced by Blum's competitors.
Its success reflects an evolving interior design market, one that is more focused on simplicity and comfort without sacrificing functionality.
Gone are the days of artful Victorian-era hinges with their curly iron patterns on prominent display - today's kitchens are sleek, stylish, and minimalist. When the Austrian inventors came up with Blumotion, these are the characteristics they had in mind.
Shutting out old hinges
The history of hinges stretches so far back into antiquity that it is impossible to say when the first door was swung shut or the first cupboard drawer closed, but evidence suggests this occurred around 1600 BC in Hattusa, an ancient Near Eastern capital, in the form of large wooden doors pivoting in stone sockets.
In the millennia since, the hinge has undergone only a handful of notable changes to its functionality (such as double action spring hinges, the kind that make it possible for a cowboy to bust open saloon doors without having to close them behind himself).
Yet none of these hinges, with the exception of the very first ones perhaps, have arguably deserved the same nod of approval that Hämmerle and Brüstle's invention does each time its dampers gently guide a cabinet door shut. This consumer satisfaction is evident in the company's sales figures.
In 2007, Blum's yearly turnover exceeded €1 billion for the first time; since then, earnings have soared to €1.26 billion. Today, they account for 12% of the European kitchen furniture sector's entire annual turnover of some €130 billion.
More than 5,000 overnight stays and more than 10,000 business dinners in and around Vorarlberg, Switzerland, can be linked to Blum every year. Even more impressive: More than €100 million that swirls around the regional economy can be linked to the business companies there do with Blum.
The power of patents
Investing 4% of turnover into research and development, Blum is now one of the most active patent filers in Austria with 1,000 patents in its portfolio, 10 of which concern Blumotion.
"Patents play a very important role in our industry, which might not be very well known over the world," Gerhard Blum said.
That could be one of the reasons why Blum has been able to grow more than 100% since it entered domestic and international markets in 2001. The company says it has been able to tap into a growing affinity worldwide for high-end kitchens that offer enhanced comfort.
Shipping thousands of tons of its cabinet hinges, lift systems and drawer runners to more than 100 countries across the globe, Blum has come to exemplify a robust, family-owned business for many Austrians.
This just goes to show that the Blum family's sensitivities to the needs of their clientele - whether more traction on slippery roads or a more comfort in the kitchen - were not lost over the generations.
‘Blumotion' has quickly set the industry standard for all kinds of furniture hinge damper systems - regardless of the manufacturer. Like ‘Xerox' and ‘Kleenex' before it, ‘Blumotion' has become a generic term for a product, independent of the brand.
Three years after Blumotion's market debut, the European Patent Office awarded Julius Blum GmbH a patent. That very same year, 2004, the soft-close system was recognised with the Red Dot Product Design Award, which ranks among the largest and most renowned design competitions in the world.
Of being nominated for the European Inventor Award 2013, Claus Hämmerle said: "The nomination was a huge surprise. We never thought that such a tiny thing could bring us such an incredible success."
With an eye on emerging markets, Blum invested €84 million in 2011 and 2012, opening a new sales location in the Ukraine and a modern distribution centre in New Zealand. It already boasts seven production plants in Austria and three more in Poland, the United States and Brazil, along with 27 subsidiaries around the world.
With that in mind, Hämmerle and Blum's invention has created a cabinetmaker's butterfly effect of sorts: If a drawer closes softly in China, a profit is made in the Alps.
How it works
The soft-closing hinge system behind Blumotion is similar to the suspension in an automobile. A damper contracts and absorbs energy via a piston that moves inside a pressure tube made of thermoplastic and silicon, and filled with a hydraulic liquid.
When the damper is fully extended and the door is open, the piston is at the far end of the tube. Shutting the door pushes the piston through the tube, where it encounters resistance due to the liquid passing around it to make room. Only a small amount of fluid, under great pressure, can pass around the piston, slowing it down.
The best part about Blumotion is that it is velocity-sensitive, meaning the faster a cupboard door is closed, the more resistance the damper provides. One can slam the door shut as one likes, but it will still not make a sound (or break).
History ‘hinges' on hinges
The ubiquity of hinges make them easy to take for granted. But think back to a time before hinges, without which the simplest measure of security - the front door - is unavailable. This was the case in ancient Turkey, where people used ladders to enter their mud-brick homes through a hole in the roof. Security ‘hinged' on raising the ladder and hoping an intruder didn't bring one of his own.
In other cultures, entryways were barricaded with heavy slabs of wood or stone. Anyone too weak to ‘close the door' was vulnerable. The earliest known hinges from around 1600 BC were only used in the most important structures, such as ramparts or houses of worship.
By the time Europeans colonised America, the hinge had become widespread. A considerable perk was the ease with which a door, lid or window could be shut, ensuring that someone other than a burly man could close off the house if need be.