The Joy of the Show
For me, the best part about being a design engineer / inventor is when I get to help create a product that people truly benefit from, and see it in use. The product could be as important as a new device that enables the early detection of breast cancer, or something as whimsical as a new toy that helps kids learn mechanics. The joy is seeing something from an idea to the finished product in someone’s hand. The thrill is witnessing the smile on their face and the enduring delight that comes with a well-designed product. A well thought out design can literally change a life, it’s a feeling like no other.
This was recently the case at the 2012 Consumer Electronics show held in Las Vegas. As a founding partner of CurrentWerks LLC, I served as chief industrial / mechanical design engineer to create two products that enable folks to charge their iPad, iPhone, Droid phone etc. Without the use of the “wall wart” transformer. These products, the “Duo” and the “Quattro,” are to be installed in place of a standard 110-volt wall outlet and are flush mounted just like any standard face plate. The user simply connects the device to be charged via USB cable to either of the products and receives enough power to produce a full charging rate on any of the devices.
The Duo The Quattro
While the Duo has two USB ports as well as the standard 110 duplex receptacle, the Quattro simply has four USB ports. Both products save energy which, as the parent of three amazing kids, is very important to me because it has an effect on the world we live in now as well as the one they inherit. The thing about wall warts is people leave them plugged into the wall even when not in use and they draw power even when not charging a device. It’s not a lot of power, but when you multiply it by millions upon millions of homes, it adds up. The Duo has intelligence in its brain that senses when there’s no device being charged and shuts down so it draws less current than a four star energy device. The Quattro has a cool switch mechanism that shuts the power off completely – zero draw.
How the Whole Thing Got Started
Like many inventions it all started with a need. One of the members of our team noticed how inconvenient and unsightly wall warts were. In fact, the funny but well established nick name for the ubiquitous black transformers says it all. No one likes a wart. It was also noted that the USB charging is rapidly becoming the new charging standard. Eventually we came together as a team, and began to state the basic requirements for the Duo and the Quattro. At the time, we didn’t know what we were going to call the product but we filled the necessary patent papers and we were off and running. In our Duo product we wanted at least two USB outlets ports so users would be able to use the ports even when they had other things plugged into the regular 110 receptacle parts, and we wanted our product to utilize the regular duplex receptacle as a component rather than re-engineering that part. This way we could save development/manufacturing cost and pass the savings onto consumers. Also we wanted the product to charge, at full charging rate, and be as good to an iPad, iPod, iPhone, or Droid as its own dedicated transformer. We knew this was a tall order but that’s the exhilaration of product design. The electrical team had its work cut out for them, as did the mechanical team. As for our Quattro product we were going for raw power – four ports of USB power to charge four devices simultaneously.
The Mechanical Task
For the mechanical team the challenge was an old one – ten pounds of electronic stuff in a five pound bag. Somehow, into a standard 16 cubic inch electrical box, we had to fit the standard 15 or 20 amp receptacles, the transformer, all the rest of the electronic goodies that make the thing work, the plastic housing that protects it all, and still leave enough room for the wire connections.
We began our task by going to the Home Depot and getting a number of the various types of electrical boxes that we thought our users may encounter. We did not want the product to be so complex that it required a licensed electrician to install. We also chose the actual duplex receptacles that we would use.
The next step was reverse engineering. Using calipers and the powerful CAD system known as NX8, we made detailed CAD models of everything. We actually made assemblies and models of the receptacles so we could simulate the screws being tightened and loosened and know exactly how much space they would take up. NX8 was a great choice of CAD systems because of its flexibility a technology called synchronous modeling that helps a design engineer make parametric modifications to a design in a much more natural and time efficient way. It’s the same CAD system used by companies like Apple Inc. and Bose.
Once the initial CAD models were done, we could answer the most pressing question, “Is there enough space?” We had to obtain a model of the USB connector to truly determine how much space there would be. We scoured the internet but we couldn’t find an accurate model of the USB connector that we choose. Eventually we had to create one using calipers and the 2-D prints that we were able to obtain. There prints from the manufacturer didn’t have all the dimensions we needed for a fully accurate model, hence the calipers.
The placement of the USB on the face plate was predicated on the optimization of five conflicting requirements; product safety, ease of install, aesthetics, clearance of the USB when the 110 outlet is being used, and strength of the face plate. Since safety is first and foremost we placed the USB ports on the side corresponding to where the duplex receptacle has its neutral terminals. The spacing of the USB ports was influenced by the clearance needed underneath the face plate for the installer to wire the unit and the fact that if they were too far out to the sides they would interfere with the smallest electrical box that we found. Aesthetics were accomplished by way of our choice of a color that would exactly match the color of the duplex receptacle and the texture. As easily imagined, the choice of the material was dictated by safety concerns.
The Electrical Task
As a simultaneous effort, the electrical team had a big challenge. Both the Duo and the Quattro had to charge an iPad, iPod, Droid etc., better than the charger that comes with the devices themselves. Also they had to stop charging when the device was fully charged, adjust their rate to whatever you plug into it, and have lower irradiative and conductive emissivity than allowed by FCC regulations and UL standards. It took a huge effort to get all that to happen. Luckily we had great people to work on the design, and we chose a testing lab that was highly professional and attentive to our needs. The company that we worked with is called Met Labs located in Santa Clara CA with offices in at least 7 other locations including China. They are a NRTL (nationally recognized testing laboratory). They truly worked overtime to ensure that the tests were done well and promptly to ensure that we would have all of our regulation ducks in a row by the time we attended the CES. Also along the way they made great suggestions on things like the labeling, the manual, etc., all in an effort to ensure that the product was as safe as can be. The electrical design also included getting prototypes, testing boards, choosing good components that were available in the quantities that we would need, cost reducing the bill of materials and generally performing a huge amount of detailed grunt work that can make or break a product launch.
The Manufacturing Task
The manufacturing of both the electrical components and the mechanical components were initiatives started before the design was complete and were a complex challenge in their own right. Both the mechanical components and the electrical definition were sent all over the place for quotes. Members of the design team traveled far and wide all over the US and to China. Preliminary designs were sent out in advance of finished PDD (product definition data) in order to stream line the process and expedite our time to market. It’s always a little worrisome to send the new baby out to manufacturing houses. There’s always a fear that it will be pirated. I once had a talk with an old chemist I had met on a plane. He was retired but he claimed to have worked for the military doing chemical warfare development. He told me that when they make Sarin, an ultra-dangerous nerve gas, they make the ingredients in different places. Almost no one knows the entire recipe; each person knows just their little portion. This way the formula doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. I think the safety on our design is the knowledge that no one firm has the product definition data for everything. When quotes came back and when we finished vetting the various possible partners, we finally made our selections. We began getting prototypes even before we choose the final manufacturing partners but at some point we released what we were hoping were our final product definition files to the organizations that we trusted to perform. When molds and circuit boards were made and first articles of inspection came back there was a bit of tweaking to be done. Unfortunately, you can’t tell everything from a prototype. On some of the components, the color was off. There were also some minor fit problems related to the connectors that we were forced to reverse engineer. Tweaks were made to the part files and they were promptly sent back to the manufacturers for correction. In the mean time, fasteners had to be procured as well as outlets, labels, the manuals, pig tails, wire nuts and everything else needed to do a large build.
The Charging Bar
Having a great idea and a well manufactured product is a small part of the overall challenge. In order to showcase the two products at the CES we decided to design and build a bar at which show goers could sit, relax, and charge their devices. The bar was about seven feet long, made out of beautiful maple wood and glass, with a head unit that contained five Duos and Four Quattros.
The Assembly Drawing of the Charging Bar
The chargers were installed just like a user would encounter them in the wall. A light rope was placed just above the outlets and underneath the top panel of the top plate. The light shines down on the products and truly attracts attention to them and the literature underneath. I watched as thousands of show goers filed past and were intrigued by the products. A number of people said something like “Finally someone did it” as if they had been waiting for this very invention. Others said “This is the coolest thing I’ve seen all day”. In a show where there were things like the new Tesla electric automobile on display, hearing “the coolest thing I’ve seen all day” was a pretty great feeling. Even better was the feeling when people actually sat at our bar, plugged their phone in, and enjoyed getting a charge. As the son of two teachers that inculcated me with the idea that service was the highest and best thing one can do, it truly felt great when people said things like “Wow, this really works well” or “ I forgot to bring my charger and my phone was running low, thanks for the charge.” The bar was a great success because prospective customers could sit and talk to us in comfort. We rented a card reader machine that we used to scan the info card of anyone who was interested in the product and wanted further information. We really connected with a lot of creative people.
Way before the product was done we were thinking about the packaging. After we got in touch with several packaging manufactures, some got back to us too slowly, others were too expensive. We decided to create the packaging design ourselves. For this we used the NX8 CAD system. To proceed we created a shape large enough to house the products then developed a flat pattern to create the cut line shape. We wanted the package to be eco-friendly, hang vertically, show off the product, be relatively easy to open, easy to put together and above all inexpensive. The design of the package was a miniature new design project complete with prototypes revisions, inspections, etc. We toyed with the idea of doing a plastic clam shell but found out that the die would be expensive, so we decided that for the first few thousand units we would go with the “chip board”. We learned from some of the packaging folks that what we usually call cardboard is called chip board in the industry.
Once the final shape was determined we translated it to Adobe Illustrator to do the graphics and the text. Some of the verbiage on the package had to be placed on it as requested by the safety testing labs.
Once the product and packaging were done, and all the plans were set and everything ordered for CES, it was a major mile stone. We loaded a small van up to the brim with product and the charging bar, food and all the other stuff that you need to spend an amazingly busy week in Las Vegas. We began our long drive from San Jose CA to Las Vegas Nevada. We started at 12:30 AM and drove for ten hours. We took turns driving and sleeping and when we arrived we were excited and motivated. Other team members arrived by plane. We set up our booth with the banner, tables and chairs, brochures and the like.
The next day people began to pour in. What started off to be a trickle quickly developed into a deluge of buyers, consumers, exhibitors, members of the press and others. There were periods were we were passing out business cards and handing out flyers with two hands at a time. We enjoyed many comments from show goers who wanted to have our product in their stores. We received orders and feedback and made many new friends. It is too early to tell whether this product is going to be a great business success. We have certainly put our hearts and souls into it. We have worked tirelessly on it and truly asked ourselves at every turn, what’s the best action we can take to make this product as good as it could be and to get it out to the maximum amount of households worldwide. I strongly believe it will help people get rid of clutter in their homes and save energy. It is a privilege to work in this creative space. We at CurrentWerks are already at work thinking of the next product that will compliment these ones. We remain as excited as ever!
Author Stephen Samuel PE, lives and works in San Jose California with wife Anne and three kids. He is the industrial / mechanical design lead and partner for CurrentWerks as well as the president of Design Visionaries. He is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts and has served the engineering and product design community since 1983. He is the author of several books on using CAD programs such as NX / Unigrapics, Nastran, TeamCenter Engineering, SolidWorks and Solid Edge.