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Bell Helmets Sr. Product Development Manager, Ben Penner, learned how to ride on an old Schwinn with a paint job like a green bass boat – banana seat and all. It was the same bike his entire family learned on, all sent off on those wobbling first pedal strokes with a confident push from his grandfather’s steady hand. Like many of us, that profound sense of new freedom hooked Ben. Unlike many of us, the bug bit so deep the bike would influence the trajectory of his professional life as much as his recreational life.
There were mountain bikes in high school and a thwarted attempt to be a bike mechanic, but once Ben went to college and enrolled in engineering things changed. “I tried getting a job as a mechanic when I was in high school but was told to buzz off, but once I was enrolled in college and studying mechanical engineering I went back to the shop and this time Fritz was like, ‘Oh ok, you’re not a high school punk anymore and are studying engineering.” so he hired me.’ remembers Ben.
It was at this shop that Ben was first introduced to road riding thanks to another mechanic. “I still remember trying out his bike and thinking it was like a rocket compared to anything I’d ever ridden. I would go riding with him and a couple of other friends and they would just destroy me, but for some reason that was fun.”
Ben graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. For a kid that grew up loving to take things apart, but was not always so great at putting them back together it was a fitting major. It was a senior project that unlocked his love of product development, “The first real product that I helped design was a super tough work light. For me that was when I really knew that what I wanted to do professionally was to make products that people used and ideally made their lives better in some way.”
A job in engineering at Toyota for 11 years was a detour from cycling but provided the ideal environment for Ben to hone his product development chops. “ That was a great learning experience for me since Toyota is so good at thinking about how the customer will use the product, and their engineers get to do everything from concept, design, to costing, to working at the factory during the lead up to production of the new vehicle.”
When Bell came calling Ben knew the company was a perfect fit. It aligned with his two passions – cycling and developing products from a rider first point of view. “The Bell ethos is about building a helmet with the rider in mind. We start out each season brainstorming about what types of helmets people need and what features they don’t have currently but would be important to their riding experience — sometimes the answer is a small detail, other times it’s a completely new style of helmet.”
It’s a Bell enduro helmet Ben points to as a great example of this drive. When Bell saw Enduro athletes riding uphill with a traditional helmet and their full face helmet hanging on their bars, it knew the current crop of helmets were not serving these riders so it went back to the drawing broad. The result was the Super 2R, an enduro helmet with a removable face guard.
“We knew that not everyone wanted a separate full face but there might be a few times per year where they would want a bit more protection than an open face helmet. Buying one helmet that could do multiple things would be valuable to them so we created a tool-less convertible helmet. We aren’t interested in being a me too brand but rather in true innovation that helps the riding experience and that same kind of thinking went into the Zephyr as well.” says Ben.
In Part two of Engineering Bell, Ben Penner will take us deep inside the development of the latest Bell Road Helmet, the Zephyr. Look for that story next week.