The journey of product development is fraught with pitfalls and dead-ends, even the most well thought-out concept doesn't necessarily translate into a simple build.
James and I have had lots and lots of experience with batteries and power electronics. Back in February we decided to begin a new product journey that might let us use that experience and who knows, it might even be something other people would want.
As a product developer there are many ways you can convince yourself and others that a set of features will be interesting to a consumer group, but you never really know until it is something tangible and out in the world. Instead of heading into new product area without the consumer research commonly available to larger companies (i.e. those with budgets) we decided to crowd-source our research through the real marketplace - a crowdfunding campaign.
Back in February I had contacted many of my former vendors and suppliers asking a simple question of each; can you make component X for us and how much will that cost for n# of parts? We were able to develop a rough bill of materials (BOM) and felt confident enough to proceed with a campaign.
The main purpose of the campaign was to see if it was a successful product. As it turns out there are many definitions of success and while the campaign didn't meet the 'funding goal' we discovered the true pain points of our consumers and a few other treasures on the way.
So how did we get started?
Our campaign closed in May but we had lots of interest from corporate customers asking when the real availability would be and when they could see some Joule Cases in action. So we got to work, it was a fairly simple and straightforward process (which is not often the case) -- build some prototypes send them around and get moving.
During the prototyping phase (all of the cases you see with non-annodized aluminum) we tried several vendors for our components, in one instance even grabbing an off-the-shelf inverter to see if the quality available to the consumer in a Big Box store was superior to what we were sourcing. More about this in a future post, and spoiler alert what we found that passed as quality from big name retailers carrying big name brands was pretty sad and potentially dangerous.
Generally speaking the prototypes worked as expected and allowed us to add new products. Originally Joule modules were to only be lithium, still using our stackable connection scheme but now we will offer a lead acid version. We've also expanded the Joule Case selection to offer a modified sine wave inverter and we can also provide a 2000w pure sine as well. The first design called for a daisy chain AC input (charging), but this feature was replaced with a 3rd inverter power out connector.
How did we prototype?
We took the first design and asked around. Not everyone will be willing to help but there are a good number of manufacturers that get excited to see something different and will cut you a break. We've been very fortunate in that regard to find vendors and suppliers that get behind our idea and think 'it's cool'.
All of the corners and face plates for the first few were 3D printed using SLS. This is a super expensive process in terms of price per part but there is very little lost in the setup process unlike creating a mold for plastic injection. These parts are also fairly fragile but do great if you need to show something off as they look near finished quality.
We used local vendors during this process and it looks like this has paid off for us as will be able to continue to use US parts throughout.
What problems did you encounter?
Our biggest problems simply came down to communication, but we could over come most of those because of the close proximity to many of our vendors, if we had been working overseas, some of these small issues would have taken months to sort out and still would have required some boots on the ground to perform QC checks.
For the components we did need overseas the issues there were cultural, asking for specification and documentation is a fast step for many of the vendors we were working with, who need a bit more dialog before that takes place. One particularly interesting encounter was the interpretation of "can you make x" versus "at what point will you make x". After going around and around about the specifications of a particular component when it came time to 'sample' these parts the vendor replies "We don't actually make that but if you order 2000 of them we certainly will try."
And so here we are at Beta. The Joule Cases have everything they need to perform, they do so very well, beating our competitors in weight and price (and in other categories as too). A few of the units are out last week and a few more go out this week.
For the remainder of the year (and a bit into the next) we will be taking preorders for Joule Case systems. We aren't going to run a crowdfunding campaign and that probably deserves some attention in a future post as well. These preorders will ship Spring 2016!
Expect some regular posts from us going forward, as we will have some fun news later this week.
Joule Case Team