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Where can Gadget Freak take you? part 1

les1.jpgThose of you who have been following the print edition of Gadget Freak may remember one from 2007 titled “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night“.  Gadget Freak and mechanical engineer Les Kelly got tired of having to go downstairs in the middle of the night to let his dog, a beagle named Daisy, out of her kennel to take care of her doggy business.  Walking down two flights of stairs on one of those cold Virginia nights provided the inspiration for Les’s Gadget Freak entry:  A remote controlled solenoid that could let the dog out while he remained ensconced in his warm bed.  Readers liked his invention so much that they voted him Gadget Freak of the Year.

Well, one thing led to another and Les’s invention has gone through many revisions, been converted to battery power from 120V power, and is now close to being a commercial product.  I recently had the opportunity to ask Les some questions about taking his idea from concept to product.  That conversation starts in this column, and will be presented in parts over the next few weeks. So without further ado:


So Les, before we get started on your doggie freedom project, tell me a little about yourself.

My main hobbies are playing basketball and watching college football and basketball, especially the Virginia Tech Hokies.  My wife and I are season ticket holders for their football team.  Like almost everyone who ever graduated from there, we LOVE our Hokies!  I received my BS in Mechanical Engineering there, and my MS (also in ME) from the University of Maryland.I work in Manassas Va.  I have been at the same complex for 28 years straight, but during that time I have worked for over a dozen different companies due to sales, expansions, contractions, takeovers, you name it.  I started there for IBM out of college in 1982, and now I work for BAE Systems.I’m married to a beautiful, smart, funny, loving, and amazing woman named Nita, and I have a great son who is at Virginia Tech himself in his last semester.  He is looking for employment upon graduation in December in civil engineering.    Like all engineers I seem to be hard wired to always try to ”fix things”.  That isn’t always a good trait for being a husband, but it does lend well to inventing things!In the early part of my career at IBM I spent a lot of time designing things, especially for automation purposes.  During that period I obtained 3 US patents, and was written up in the IBM Invention Disclosure Bulletin another 27 times for other inventions.  I miss that work sometimes in my current position of program manager.  I am a registered Professional Engineer, and Program Management Professional.  I presently live in Northern Virginia just outside of Washington DC, but my wife and I, both beach lovers, hope/plan to move to San Diego in 5 years!

Where did the idea come from?  Was it out of the blue, or did something inspire you?

It really just came to me, stimulated by 3 factors I think:
1) I am a mechanical engineer and I used to design lots of automation-related inventions for my job (I have a few patents and such).
2) I had a universal remote control system in my home at that time that you could use to turn on or off anything that could be plugged into a 120V outlet.  It was really for lamps and such, but I knew in the back of my head that it would work for anything that could be plugged in to 120V.
3) I got frustrated because the only thing I was providing after walking all the way down 2 flights of stairs was a simple linear mechanical translation of less than 1 inch to open the latch… my dog would open the door of her own power and run upstairs.
 
It just hit me that a solenoid would provide that translation, and I could hook it to the door and power it by the remote control!  The rest was history, as they say.

It seems straightforward, did it work right away or did it take some tinkering to get it to work?

cage1_s.JPGBeing an ME and not an EE, it took me some reading and tinkering to get the electrical part of the 1st prototype working.  For example, selecting a suitable relay and making sure the power sent to the solenoid was a pulse.  Continuous power would burn out the coils of the solenoid if you forgot to turn the device “OFF” with the remote after turning it “ON”.  I did that once and it just stopped working, and it took me a while to figure out what had happened.  The mechanical part was more straightforward to me, but as the design has evolved the mechanical part has proved to be every bit as challenging in figuring out how to make the product adaptable to the widest range of different crates.

Was it reliable?

Once I figured out the pulse part of the story that I described above, the prototype worked incredibly reliably, for many years.  It never failed.   As I will explain when we discuss how it evolved, the reliability issues came up when I tried to evolve the design from 120V power to batteries, which was required by the folks who had all of the potential commercial applications.  They mostly shied away from the 120V power cord that I had used for my prototype for a mass application for pets due to perceived safety concerns, and I had to move the design to batteries.

So let’s talk about safety.  Did any safety issues come up, either electrical or otherwise?

Mechanically, there were never any safety issues, because there is no possibility of anything getting pinched, etc. However, as I began talking to potential manufacturers and/or sellers of it they perceived the 120V cord as a safety concern. They thought a dog might chew through it and get shocked. I reasoned that a dog could just as easily chew through any other 120V cord already in a home.  But I had to admit their concern made sense in regards to selling the product.  It would be a better product overall if you didn’t need an outlet nearby to plug it into, and it would look better too. The problem is that going to batteries presented BIG design challenges.

Thanks Les!  In future posts we’ll find out how the design evolved in response to marketing and other non technical forces, how the project was funded, and what the current status of it is.

Steve Ravet

Design News Gadgeteer

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