3D printing, Kickstarter and old-fashioned perseverance: The tools of the modern inventor
February 28, 2012
The near concurrent rise of Kickstarter and semi-affordable 3D printing means we live in a time when it is easier than ever to be an inventor of physical things. Kickstarter, the social network which lets members of the public invest, or, more accurately, support and become early adopters of new technology, has opened a completely new route to funding that is both democratic and meritocratic. 3D printing on the other hand means inventors can create test prototypes with relatively little expense and minimal difficulty. But though it may be easier than ever to be an inventor, that is not to say it is at all easy.
Gizmag spoke at length to David Alden, whose spring-loaded Recoil Winder cable management device clearly struck a chord raising more than 14 times the original US$10,000 investment target. Both Kickstarter and 3D printing may have been essential to the development of the Recoil Winder, but Alden's story also demonstrates the need for good old-fashioned perseverance.
Gizmag: I think we can all identify with the problem the Recoil Winder seeks to solve. Was identification of this problem the start of the story? Had you tried other cable management systems before coming up with the Winder?
David Alden: The creation of the Winder was entirely organic. We had just completed building a new home, and my wife and I had designed every element of the home around the things that we owned; furniture, books, art, electronics etc., but once we were in the home I was bummed that the one thing that did not have a spot was our cords and chargers.
They were constantly on the counter and stuffed in drawers, and it was a detail that really bugged me. As is my nature, I sat down and resolved to figure it out. As a fly fisherman I had a few extra fishing reels in the garage, so I started winding my cords up around those, which was cool, but totally impractical. I then got out a couple of tape measures, cut off the tape, added a wire hook, and bam, I was winding cords. All of this was done in about 30 minutes.
The light bulb went on and I decided on the spot to start Recoil. Little did I know that the whole tape measure concept had some fatal flaws, and so I spent nearly the next year figuring out how to really make it work. The nuances and mechanical realities were far more complex than I had anticipated.
During this process, I definitely looked at every other cord storage solution on the market, and none of them seemed to get it right.
Gizmag: There's a lot of work to get an idea from an idea to a first prototype, and it's a step that many people don't take. Are you used to making things? Was the prototype hard to build?
David Alden: I have been involved in the snowboard industry for about 30 years. Anyone who was involved in snowboarding in the earliest days was automatically in product development. What little equipment that was available sucked, and barely worked. If you wanted snowboard boots, you bought a pair of hiking boots and cut and sewed until they worked. If you wanted metal edges on a board, you ripped them off of a pair of skis and screwed them onto your board. If you wanted a decent pair of bindings, you bought some plastic, melted it over the stove and formed your own. This process taught me that building stuff is just a matter of going out to the garage and building stuff ... and I have been building stuff ever since.
No doubt there is a huge mental barrier between wishing for a new product and just going out to the garage and building it. I'm not sure why that is. These days CAD and 3D printing have changed all that. It has never been easier to just go build something. Really all you need now is an idea, a CAD person and a 3D printer.
Gizmag: You've been open about the process of iterative design you used to develop prototype after prototype. How many versions of the Winder do you think you came up with? How long did this process take? Did you hit any dead ends conceptually or technologically?
David Alden: At least 75 versions over about 6 months. No kidding. What I did not realize is how hard it would be to figure out how to keep the spring from spinning-out when a cord wasn't on the winder. If someone "hits the switch" with no cord on the winder, the thing spins out. What a drag. I even convinced myself at one point that people might think it was fun to spin-out the winder and then rewind it, it might even be a feature people liked. I had this picture of people sitting on a phone call and spinning out their winder and then winding it back up for fun. I was delusional. At first this challenge was fun, after awhile not so much.
I was completely defeated by this one problem, then one night standing in my kitchen the solution came to me, and I had our final design modeled and built the next day. Game on.
The upside to this process was it had me obsessed with cord management for a long time, and I developed several different products out of this process. Those products will be released over the next few months.
Gizmag: At what stage of development did you decide to go with Kickstarter? Was Kickstarter the obvious route for funding? Did you consider alternatives?
David Alden: Through the process, several people mentioned that my product was perfect for Kickstarter, but I wasn't listening. I had the wrong idea that it meant selling small pieces of the company to "backers." I know that over the life of Recoil, I will have to part with percentages of the company to keep it funded, so I am uber-wary of giving up equity too early in the process. Then one day I opened my ears and listened to how it really works, that people would actually pre-order and pre-pay for product that wasn't even in the warehouse yet. What? Wow. Really? I read everything I could find on Kickstarter that night, and asked my nephew to film our video the next day. Three days later I launched. I would love to say that I am totally savvy and have had my eye on Kickstarter from the start, but no.
I did have the advantage of having tooling already underway in China, so I knew that I would be able to build and deliver product in a reasonable amount of time. I think people need to be careful of launching Kickstarter too early, better be sure you can come through if your project gets funded, you can be sure that among your Kickstarter backers there are bound to be a couple of attorneys who won't be too stoked if they don't get their product in a reasonable time frame.
Gizmag: What stage are you at with the Winder now?
David Alden: Tooling is nearly complete, and it is nice to know that I can now finish paying for those tools. I wrote the factory a check for half of the tooling before we launched on Kickstarter, and honestly I have no idea how I would have paid for the other half if Kickstarter didn't succeed - (*audible sigh of relief*). I traveled to China a week ago to oversee production, assembly and packaging, and we will have product stateside early April.
Gizmag: Any plans to broaden the product range down the line?
David Alden: Yep, wait until you see what I have up my sleeve. You know that waterfall of cords and cables that are pouring down behind your desk right now? Push your chair back and take a look. What a mess. Enjoy it while you have it, because I am making it my personal mission to clean that up for you.
It's interesting that Alden warns prospective inventors to be cautious of launching a Kickstarter campaign too early in the process - and the Kickstarter website is not wholly without cautionary tales of, if not outright failures, then at least customers disgruntled at delayed products and poor communication. These risks are highest when the products launched are physical - Kickstarter is also home to funding campaigns for digital-only content - films, video games, music projects and writing projects among them which sometimes appear to launch with little more than an idea behind. Though that may work for such products, inventors of physical products may be wise to listen to Alden's words of caution.
Interesting, too, is Alden's familiarity with getting his hands dirty with physically hacking at snowboard gear in order to make improvements. Sure, 3D printing is a boon to designers of physical things, but it is not a wholesale substitute for practical experience and expertise. But it's undeniable that both Kickstarter and 3D printing are having a democratizing effect upon the making of things.
Though the Recoil Winders Kickstarter campaign may have wound up, the product website says orders will open in a matter of days with a 15% discount for early adopters.
Product page: Recoil Winders