In parts one and two of this series we met Les Kelly, Gadget Freak inventor, Gadget Freak of the year winner, and entrepreneur, and learned about the inspiration and design of the original dog crate remote control. Now we’ll find out about some of the challenges Les ran into trying to turn his prototype into a product.
Les, one more inspiration question: When did you get the idea to make it into a product, and what were the circumstances?
I got the idea to make the prototype one cold night when I had gone down all the stairs in my house to release my puppy who was barking and my back hurt a lot!
I got the idea to try to make the prototype into a saleable product after my friend at work, who I’d told about it, put a copy of Design News opened to the Gadget Freak column on my desk and told me I should see if I could get in that column. After that went well and then I also won the Gadget Freak of the year contest, I got to thinking maybe it would be marketable if I was able to get a patent on it. So I initiated the patent process, and when that was completed I decided to start trying to find interested parties.
Then, once you decided to try to produce it, what design constraints did you run into that weren’t design related? IE how did the design evolve in terms of safety, manufacturability, durability, or other concerns? Most of us engineers will understand how it was designed for functionality, but I’m curious about how non functional issues affected the design.
The biggest and most difficult change was the batteries, but you’re correct in that there were other issues. Many changes have been towards the purpose of reducing cost and size at high volume. Thus my battery requirement has evolved from 16 AAs to now only 4 AAs. The large stand-alone relay device and separate RF signal receiver and antenna were all combined and shrunk onto a tiny circuit board. To accomplish this I spent a lot of time surfing the internet looking for clues, until I finally found a Chinese supplier who made the all-in-one miniature device I needed. They sold it on eBay for home inventors and/or remote control car aficionados.
I started a dialogue with them and they were very helpful. Over the course of a year or so they worked with me to massage their product into what I needed. One key thing they did which was also very important was find a way to reduce the quiescent or “sleeping” current of their device dramatically. I couldn’t have the RF receiver running down the batteries. They did a GREAT job of reducing it for me, to the point where the batteries should last several years now instead of the original month maximum!
I was also working on integrating a switch into the design that would disconnect the unit when the latch was retracted and only energize it when the latch was engaged - i.e. when the dog was in the cage, which is the only time it really needed to be activated waiting for the open signal and would probably reduce the “on” time from 24 hours/day down to 6-8 hours/day - but they reduced the quiescent current so much I ultimately didn’t need to make that change.
In regard to safety, we’ve introduced a separate battery compartment with cover molded into the case like most commercial products have so that the consumer will never come in contact with the inner components such as the circuit board or solenoid. I also had to make sure there was no pinching hazard, but that was pretty easy for this product.
In regard to manufacturability, I needed to work with the mold people to get the features we needed in different ways. For example where I had tapped holes in metal pieces in the prototype we now have threaded metal inserts (i.e. helicoils) in the plastic molded parts. Another breakthrough in regard to manufacturability was my realization one day that a simple tie wrap would work much better and save a lot of manufacturing cost in regard to how we attach the unit’s shaft to the user’s crate door latch. We also had some negotiations on how to reduce the number of screws to save cost, and trade offs on electronic parts in cost vs. function.
Durability was not as much of a challenge as was access and installation ease. We need to make sure anyone can install it very quickly, and that they will be able to change the batteries easily too. These goals led us to a product that is mostly pre-assembled. There will only be 2 pieces in the package to attach to each other, plus the tie wrap.
How about selecting components and materials? How were those driven by non design constraints?
In regard to selecting components, I had to accept that my investor’s factory in China would want to redesign and reselect a lot of what I had to better fit their comfort level and supplier base. They did a good job of that without requiring too much from me other than approval, so that was a pleasant surprise. Component selection has been interesting, because I’ve learned that Chinese factories tend to break down whatever you give them, come up with components and suppliers that they already use, and give you back a product that looks a little different but works the same and costs less for them to make. They are very good at doing this. The big challenges are language translations and time differences. Because of these 2 factors you basically end up trading e-mails until everything is worked out. They work while we sleep and vice-versa, but eventually it all works out.
We also have some challenges now as to how to package and market the product and also how to display it at trade shows. For the former we’ve spent a lot of time figuring out whether to sell as a stand-alone product first, or approach OEM crate manufacturers first. We plan to eventually do both. The packaging for stand-alone needs to be eye-catching. I also need to draft instructions, and since we will be selling it in many countries those will need to be translated. I also learned how to make an animated banner and get it listed with an online pet product website. I’ve made some videos of it, and we will be making more with a real photographer. For trade shows, we are working on a motorized slide setup where a stuffed dog will move into and out of a cage with the product installed on the door to attract the attention of folks at the show and get them to stop and take a look. This has turned into a whole separate design challenge!
Thanks Les! In the next column we’ll learn about Les’s business, his investors, and what it’s like working with retailers.
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