Dr. Dylan Burns is a mean, lean, powerlifting machine, and if the brain were a muscle it’d be lifting double what his body can. With decades of lifting experience and a PhD in mechanical engineering this man is both brains and brawn. “Where can I meet such a man?” one might ask. Right in your own backyard. Dr. Burns has been at the University of Vermont since 1998 when he was drawn in by the aspiration to design snowboards for Burton. In the years proceeding he has developed his own brand, dbgear, for leather goods like weightlifting belts, dog collars, purses, and harnesses. A jack of many trades, a king of many crowns. And a kind king at that. When I sat down to speak with him he was friendly, humorous, and an all-around great guy. Don’t believe me? Read below and weep sucka.
You have spent your entire academic career at UVM, what’s so good about the Groovy UV?
“When I first moved to Vermont in the late 90s I was an avid snowboarder, there was a big attraction for me to work for Burton snowboards. I was lucky enough to do my senior project as an undergraduate student at UVM with Burton and continue on with an internship and several contract jobs with the engineering department there. I visited UVM my senior year of high school and was thoroughly impressed with the Engineering Department and Faculty at UVM.
I was also drawn to the music scene in Burlington. When I first moved here there were two music venues downtown that were actively involved in the youth music scene at the time; 242 Main and Club Toast. This inspired me to get involved with other local musicians and continue to play in bands for many years.”
What is your favorite class to teach at UVM?
“ME 171 – Design of Elements is one of my favorite classes to teach. This course ties in content from previous classes that undergraduate students have taken in their freshmen and sophomore years, and illustrates an application base for them. A lot of the theory, equations, and math they learned in these classes can be applied to an actual design project in this course. Students have the opportunity to work together in small groups to design a device for assistive technology. This includes devices that aid people with disabilities, help people recover from an injury, or enhance physical or mental capabilities of healthy individuals. It’s very rewarding to see the students’ creativity and ingenuity as they work through the design process, starting from background research, brainstorming, and initial concept development, all the way through to creating a final product design ready for market”
What is the focus of your current research?
“My current research with the University of Vermont focuses on ground penetrating radar (GPR). We are developing an innovative technology using augmented reality (AR) tools for imaging and mapping subsurface infrastructure. Digital 3-D information regarding the location and condition of subsurface urban infrastructure is emerging as a potential new paradigm for aiding in the assessment, construction, emergency response, management, and planning for these vital assets.
The motivation for this research is that most of the infrastructure buried under cities is in unknown aging condition with inaccurately known locations. Better knowledge of these conditions will produce better management, operations, construction and emergency response outcomes.”
When did you know you wanted to make a zapping belt to be the focus of your doctoral dissertation?
“I began my research as an undergraduate student working with lordosimeters measuring the curvature of the lower back. This research focused on the relation between seated posture, specifically lower back curvature or lordosis, biofeedback control, and lower back pain (LBP).
This project progressed into a clinical study and became the topic for my dissertation, ‘Ambulatory Lordosimeter Measurement and Feedback Control of Seated Posture’
In a section of my dissertation I look at the potential application for the use of this belt for weightlifting.”
Speaking of belts, you lift bro?
“I got into weight training in junior high school through a youth lifting program at our local YMCA. I attended the program with several of my childhood friends, went through the training, and got really hooked on it. I continued to lift all through junior-high and high school as part of the training for soccer and lacrosse. After moving to Vermont for college I linked up with a local powerlifting group, Vermont Powerlifting. I became friends with a couple of the competitors and the owner which ultimately got me to attend my first powerlifting meet with them. I wanted to try a bit of everything so I also did some CrossFit as well as a local bodybuilding show at one point. I am not competing currently, but I still train in all those areas.”
How has your incredible knowledge of mechanical engineering guided your leather working?
“There were really only two real styles of belts that were available at the time; prong belts and lever belts. Both of those styles of belts only allow for adjustment in one-inch increments. With the prong belts you literally had to lean up against the rack to get it tight enough on you, then to get out of it was not the easiest, and you could never get it quite the right tightness. That’s something that I saw a demand for personally. I was working as a design engineer for another local company, m2, that designed a ratcheting medical tourniquet. I saw an application, spoke with the owner, started developing it for weight belts, and at that point branched off to form my own company, dbgear. The implementation of this ratcheting buckle design allowed for On-The-Fly millimeter scale incremental adjustments in tightness (as compared to the standard one-inch increments on the majority of current weight belts) this design also features a quick release function on the buckle, making the belt easy to take off to transition between exercises. My experience and knowledge of mechanical engineering helped with the material selection of the components for the buckle and ladder strap. I built a custom testing rig for performance fatigue and life cycle testing of the belt and its components. Custom sensors and testing procedures were then developed to measure the applied loading and correlate the data to the circumferential pressure that a lifter would exert on the belt.”
Ooooo cool cool
“I am in the process of furthering the development and creating a smart weight belt. Something we could instrument with the lordosimeter and some other sensors. The goal is to provide real-time biofeedback to help maintain form during lifts. Cognitive features would allow the belt to learn the lifter’s movements and alert them as needed. ‘lean forward slightly, keep your chest up…’ This is an ongoing fun side project.”
How much sweat can you get on dbgear leather before it needs treatment?
“A good leather conditioner is smart to use with any leather product. For lifting belts, I recommend treatment every three months. It keeps the leather fresh, and prevents drying out and cracking. For the weight belts, the sweat actually helps the leather contour to the shape of your body over time. ”
How did your lifting background prepare you for your time as a bouncer at RJ’s?
“After completing my post doc at UVM I wanted to focus on my company dbgear. I needed a job that allowed me to have my days free. Between getting the business started, completing my apprenticeship in leatherworking, researching, developing, and testing my belts, there was a lot to be done. Having a night job gave me the flexibility to do this”
How did late night leather become a subsection of dbgear?
“One of the topics I discuss in ME 171 – Design of Elements is the ecological considerations with the design process. One way to reduce waste is through recovery and reuse. When making lifting belts there are always leftover leather ‘scraps’. I wanted to repurpose the extra pieces, so I explored a variety of new products to make use of the scraps. Items like coasters, dog collars, earrings, and bags became part of our collection. Soon after, requests and ideas started coming in from a few friends within the LGBTQIA+ community for harnesses and other small pieces. This grew into the “Late Night Leather” line. With their assistance, I was able to create custom pieces that have been worn to Pride events in Montreal and beyond. I am grateful for the opportunity to apply my engineering knowledge and skills to design and develop an array of products that benefit many groups of people. I also have vegan clients that asked us to develop synthetic options for our leather goods, which expanded our customer base. One of my favorite parts of my business is taking on custom projects that clients dream up. Engineering has taught me to embrace challenges and find creative solutions to problems as they arise, and I have definitely carried that creativity and ideology into dbgear.”