When baby products meet high-end robotics

FORTUNE — Henry Thorne once programmed hulking robots to weld the frames of Buick Regals, Pontiac Grand Prixs, and Chevy Cutlass Supremes on a General Motors (GM) assembly line. He was one of the key brains behind a six-mile, spark-throwing spectacle that became a symbol of Detroit automation.

Today, Thorne, 53, designs robots for much smaller vehicles that carry much cuter cargo. He’s the engineering brains behind the Origami, the world’s only power-folding stroller.

Created by the Pittsburgh-based firm 4Moms, the Origami has a push-button folding and unfolding mechanism, remote-control lights, a cell phone charger, a speedometer, an LCD dashboard, self-charging generators in its wheels, and other features for parents who don’t mind dropping a cool $800 on a fully loaded model.

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4Moms is a pioneer when it comes to robotic baby products, with no imitations of the Origami stroller currently out on the market. “They own the market when it comes to robotics in baby gear,” says Hollie Schultz, founder and CEO of Baby Gizmo, a Chicago-based baby products review site. 

Thorne’s robotics expertise has helped turn 4Moms into a player in the estimated $8 billion U.S. baby products industry. The company posted sales of almost $17 million in 2011 and placed its products on the shelves of Target (TGT), Nordstrom (JWN), and Babies ‘R Us. The babies of Jennifer Garner, Courtney Kardashian, and Elton John have been photographed with their products. 4Moms’ success also has attracted new investors, including a recent $20 million infusion from Bain Capital Ventures of Boston.

In addition to the Origami, the 67-employee company also makes the robot-propelled mamaRoo, an infant seat that mimics human parents’ movements; the Cleanwater Infant Tub, which controls temperature and circulates clean water continually; and the Breeze, a playard that opens or folds in a single step.

It’s a long way from the automotive assembly line to Babies ‘R Us, but it’s a logical progression to Thorne. “These mini-robots are more complex than the robots used in assembly lines,” he says.

Scale is a major design constraint for Thorne and 4Moms. All electronics and software had to be streamlined into a small ball that fit neatly below the Origami’s seat. “If the ball were twice as big, no one would buy it,” Thorne says. “It would go from awesome to ugly and inelegant.”

For moms, by dads?

Despite its maternal name, 4Moms’ products are actually the invention of two dads — Thorne has two children, aged 20 and 22, while his co-founder Robert Daley, 42, has a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old. After starting their company in 2005, the partners held focus groups with Daley’s wife Jenn and her friends to discuss colors, design, and other features; hence the name 4Moms.

Schultz of Baby Gizmo believes the company’s name has helped 4Moms. “If they had called it 2Dads, it would not have done as well,” she says. “Moms listen to moms.”

Even so, the high-tech products have drawn men into a market that is overwhelmingly mom-centric. “You show a dad the Origami and they say, ‘Watch this.’ The headlights open and close on their own,” Schultz says. “My husband invites the neighbors over to see it. It taps into their manhood.”

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Even when moms make the final purchasing decision on baby products, dads also have influence. Schultz says mothers of young children may be more likely to buy a high-tech stroller if they know their husbands will take the baby for a walk. “They are smart to stand out with robotics,” she says of 4Moms.

For all the things it does well, the Origami has one design flaw, says Schultz. It only reclines a few inches, making it hard for a child to nap, (although a bassinet attachment is available for infants). “They have lost a big portion of business by that feature alone,” she says.

From plumbing products to baby gear

Thorne and Daley, a former venture capitalist, didn’t initially set out to enter the overcrowded baby products market. When they started their company, they just wanted to create electronics that would take advantage of the dramatic drop in processor prices (down from an average of $14 in 2003 to 70 cents today).

The duo thought that the plumbing industry was overdue for innovation, so they invented a shower attachment with a remote-controlled temperature adjustment. They figured gadget guys would love it but were shocked when seniors and moms flocked to their booth at a Pittsburgh trade show. So Thorne and Daley abandoned their plans for the shower attachment and introduced a bath spout cover, which they still market to moms.  

Friends told them they were crazy to invent a new product. They believed in their vision, but they say they knew they’d face an uphill battle against more established competitors when they carried a prototype of a new product, their Clearwater Infant Tub — which circulates clean and temperature-controlled water — to the 2006 Juvenile Products Trade Show in Orlando.

“We thought it would be hard to do business with a company no one had ever heard of and that had never made a product before,” Daley says. Thorne interjects: “And to be honest, we had no idea how to make the product.”

But the bathtub was an instant hit. “Babies R Us told us they had to have it and put it in 280 stores,” Daley says.

That same year, at another trade show, Daley says he watched a salesperson demo the folding and unfolding of a high-end stroller. There was something unsettling about the sight. He couldn’t put his finger on it, he says, so he stood and just watched her repeat the process for about an hour.

Then it hit him: She had to get on her hands and knees. How could a mother do that on the pavement surface of a supermarket parking lot?

He walked over to Thorne, directed him to a quiet corner and whispered to him: “Power folding stroller.”

Big engineering projects, small packages

Thorne, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University who had worked at GM 37 years ago, beamed. Here was a project that would let him exercise his robotics skills. “I was born to make that invention,” he says.

Thorne says his robotics background makes innovation easier for 4Moms’ design team. “They don’t have to worry about the mechanical goo inside because they know I can do it,” he says.

He thought he’d need a year-and-a-half to bring his vision to life. It took five. “It is shocking,” he says. “You think you had it in your head. It takes a long time to make a power-folding stroller.”

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All 4Moms products are high-tech. To make its mamaRoo, the engineers used electrodes to mimic human parents’ bouncing and swaying motions. The most complex product to design was the playard, which operates under a 72-bar linkage. “You push it down from the center, and that causes the corners to move sideways,” Thorne says

4moms is currently developing new models of seats, strollers, and playards and it plans to introduce a product in another, yet unnamed, baby category.

Thorne says he’s had a fun ride bringing the power-folding stroller to market — and into the arms of parents. “At GM, maybe five electricians around the coffee pot thought I was great,” he says. “Now I have Natalie Portman, Courtney Kardashian, and Jennifer Garner and thousands of other women loving what I am doing. It is a thousand times more rewarding.”

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