Update #4: This is how we do it
Bam, Kickstarter. Bam! $49,000 and climbing, with 11 lucky days left to go. The cat's not in the bag yet, but he's getting there. Help us cram that cat all the way in and find some more cats to put in with him, so he doesn't get lonely in there!
In all seriousness--the support that you've given us this far is fantastic. We are diving into the development of the Pocket Factory with ever-increasing vigor, and there are many bolts to be tightened, lines of code to be written, panels to be made and worlds to be shaken. The further we can get with this Kickstarter, the further we can push and refine the Pocket Factory. So, keep on spreading the word, and stay tuned for an awesome update and new reward that we'll unlock as soon as we hit our goal (hint: it's at the confluence of solar + makers). And now, on with the show!
Fast-forward seven months into the future. We have a pocket factory that can make solar panels that are whatever current, voltage and dimension a customer wants. Now what?Well, now we want to make solar panels and get them out into the world. But how will customers order panels from us? How do they tell us what size and shape panel they need? How do we tell them how much? After all, Shawn and I are just two guys--if we want to sell panels, do we need to build a team of salespeople to take calls from interested customers?
No! We don't want to do what current factories do. Current factories are clunky and expensive and hard to work with. The Solar Pocket Factory isn't just about automation--it's about a new way to get microsolar panels into peoples' hands. And the first step in that process is the interface with customers.
So today I want to show off our first stab at a web interface for the Solar Pocket Factory. We wanted a way for customers to easily and quickly order and receive solar panels, to make their own custom panels at whatever size, voltage and current they specify, and to give instant, transparent pricing on the panels. So I wrote a quick interface:
With this interface, we want to tightly interface the factory with the customers. If a guy in Saskatoon orders a 12V solar panel to keep the electric battery on his bass boat topped up, or if a designer in Mumbai orders five hundred small panels for a run of solar-powered flashlights, we want the Solar Pocket Factory to respond immediately, popping their designs onto a job queue and having them built, tested and ready to ship ASAP. Even if we're not getting direct orders from customers, and we do have a team of salespeople who handle higher-volume customers, we want a way to send and track new orders to the pocket factory. This interface is a first cut, and we're making this up as we go, so please, take a second to play with it, here, and let us know what you think. Critical feedback is lovely!
Before going into our ordering interface any more, I want to give some more background on what it's like to order from a traditional microsolar factory right now. We've done this a bunch, and the process is always the same: the factory has a simple web page with some pictures of panels they've made before and some limited tech specs. They usually put a range of prices on the website, but nothing specific. Before we decide to work with a factory, we set up a visit and go check out their production line to see if they're producing reasonably, they treat their workers well, and they're serious about making panels.
Let's say we want to work with that factory to make a solar panel. First, we'll want to get one or two panels to test out. We call them up and say, "hey--we're interested in working with you to make solar panels, and we'd like a couple samples. We want to get some 3" x 3" solar panels that put out .3W at 5V. How much would it cost for a few samples, and when could you get them to us?"There's usually a couple days' worth of back-and-forth between us and the factory, and they take a few weeks to make the samples and ship them out to us. We test them and decide if we like them. If we need to change something, we repeat the process all over again.Once we get some samples that are OK, we call up the factory and say, "Great! Can you make us a thousand?" Nope--their minimum quantity is 3,000 panels, so we'd have to scrape up some extra cash to pay for those 2,000 extra panels, and keep them sitting around in inventory. If we decide to go through with it, it takes about three weeks for the factory to ship us their first production units.Then, we often find a problem with some of the production units. The factory expects this, and makes an extra couple hundred panels to sub in, in case there's manufacturing defects, but the issue is that they don't always catch the faulty panels, so we have to double-check them and head on over to the factory to point out issues with product they're shipping. It's a pretty time-intensive process, and we'll probably spend ~50-200 man-hours interfacing with a factory to get an order of products out the door. Bigger companies could hire a consultant to do this slog-work, but we're not big enough to afford it.
So, finally, two or three months after we set out to order some panels, we've finally got them. What a pain! With the Solar Pocket Factory, we want to do better, and there's a few changes in particular that could make a big difference:
First off, there's the delays. It takes all that time to make the panels because the factories work in 'push production' mode, making giant batches all at once. This is usually more production than the clients need, and like our excess panels, a lot of this batch will sit around in inventory for a while. Factories produce this way because it takes a certain amount of time and resources to lock in a sale and it takes a certain amount of time to set up the production, and they want to make sure it's worth their while. Thing is, it's a big pain for the designers, and it clogs up the production line making panels that don't have buyers. The faster alternative is just-in-time production, where the factory starts making a panel when it gets an order, minimizing the extra production and inventory costs and cutting the time between when a panel is ordered and when it's produced, shipped and delivered to the length of the factory's work queue. To do this well, you have to tightly integrate the factory with the customers, so the factory knows to start making a panel as soon as it's ordered, and the time and cost of setting up a new order has to be very low.
Then there's the minimum order quantities. It's standard for a solar factory to ask for a minimum order of 3,000 of a type of panel. We'd have no minimums, taking orders as small as a single panel. We might not have the volumes, immediately, that traditional factories have, but we can operate profitably on high-margin, low-volume orders, and at the same time, produce for the multitude of customers who want a bunch of solar panels, but just not 3,000 of them.
It's the year 2012, and it feels silly to have to travel a couple thousand miles just to tell someone, "I want a bunch of solar panels that are this wide by this high". Of course, that's how we have to order panels right now. The thing is, there's only five things that you care about* with a microsolar panel: overall dimensions, panel wattage, panel voltage, the panel covering and the location of the contacts. We should be able to make a website for customers to specify everything they want to specify about their solar and do it accurately, without needing to hammer it out in an interminable string of emails and skype calls.
Being able to use a website to define custom dimensions and electrical characteristics is revolutionary in microsolar, but equally important is providing instant pricing information and making it easy for customers to pay. With current factories, if we want to know the price of a solar panel, we have to mail back and forth with a salesperson until we get a quote a few days later. Payment is usually an international transfer that's a pain for small orders. With the Solar Pocket Factory, we want to have our panels delivered to our customers before most factories can quote a price.
Like most concepts with the Solar Pocket Factory, this is very different from how things are done right now. But things aren't done very well right now, and part of the fun of re-imagining the future is dreaming up and building things that work the way we'd like. Fast, easy access to low-cost, locally produced clean energy generators made by cheap, distributed machines that work without human intervention: That's the kind of world we get excited about. And that's the world we want to build.
Stay tuned for more, especially that big release that's coming when we hit our goal. Check out our blog on SolarPocketPages.com for lots more thoughts from me and Shawn. Sign up for our newsletter here for up-to-the-minute updates from our pockets. Tell everyone about the hungry inventors who need their help to solar-power the world.
And stay pretty.
* there's quite a bit more, but assuming that you're willing to work with standard 17.2% efficient polysilicon and epoxy or glass encapsulation, this is pretty much what it boils down to.
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Take us out to lunch--Inventors gotta eat. Lots of famous kickstarter-ers put up rewards where you can pay $10,000 to get lunch with them. We're not that famous, so instead, _you_ can buy _us_ lunch. Give us whatever you feel like, and in your message to us, tell us the fanciness level of the restaurant we should go to. We'll take a picture of us eating the cheapest thing we can buy and send it to you. If you're in Manila or Hong Kong, come eat with us!Estimated delivery:
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Early Bird Special--Our first 140 backers get a whopping 28% off our kit. This is the same Solar Pocket Kit you see below, but at a low low price for our early backers. Look at you! You're punctual, excited about solar energy, and you've got great taste in shoes. You really oughta reward yourself with a kit to make solar panels. And, international shipping is included!Estimated delivery:
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The Solar Pocket Factory Book--Read the story of our next year as we work to change the way the world makes small solar panels. Chock full of dreams, designs, plans, stories, freaks, We want to open up not just the invention itself, but talk about the people and motivation behind the invention, the different tacks we try to get the thing to work and to bring our idea out into the world. Now with more truth! Free shipping, anywhere in the world.Estimated delivery:
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The Solar Pocket Shield--This shield is the easiest way to use cleantech to power your arduino project. This is an assembled and tested shield that harvests energy using a built-in solar panel, providing a constant 5V to your arduino while storing excess charge in a built-in battery. Just plug it into your arduino and the shield takes care of the rest!Estimated delivery:
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The Solar Pocket Kit--This kit comes with everything you need to make your own solar panels quickly and easily. Convert all your portable electronics to solar power, come up with your own solar creations, and just experiment with making solar panels. Every kit has an assortment of pre-cut solar cells, glue to assemble strings of the cells, waterproof covering for your panel, a length of copper tape and small magnets. Free international shipping!Estimated delivery:
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Double pack--Solar invention is more fun with two! Get two Solar Pocket kits and save $10. Give one to a friend and make some solar panels together! Nothing says friendship like sunshine and silicon! Free international shipping!Estimated delivery:
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Solar Experimenter's Kit--This is everything you need to make your own solar panels from scratch and explore the potential of the power they produce. Each pack includes a Solar Pocket kit with everything you need to make your own solar panels, as well as an assortment of stuff to power off solar--high-powered LEDs, a transistor radio, a DC motor, assorted phone charge cables (not for smart phones--if you're interested, check out our solar phone charging kit below), and a nickel metal-hydride battery pack. The kit also comes with a manual with step-by-step instructions showing how to build your panels and run experiments. Perfect for classroom activities, science fairs, and just experimenting with solar on your own. Every kit comes with trace amounts of our DNA! The free shipping fairy will bring these kits to your doorstep.Estimated delivery:
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Sunlover's package--For people who love to make solar, we're bundling our standard Solar Pocket Kit with a large assortment of extra solar cells. In addition to everything that's in the kit, this package includes one hundred of our standard pieces, and fifty pieces each of our thin and stout pieces. Make solar projects galore! Free international shipping is part of the deal.Estimated delivery:
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Solar Phone Charge Kit--Keep your phone charged with solar you built from scratch! This is a bundle of our Solar Pocket kit, a high-capacity Lithium-ion battery and a Seeed Studios' LiPo Rider Pro circuit. The Solar Pocket kit has everything you need to make your own solar panel, and the LiPo Rider circuit board comes pre-assembled and takes care of charging up a lithium battery and providing a regulated power output that can power most iPhones, Galaxy, Blackberry, and other Smartphones . The LiPo Rider outputs to a female USB port that can accept any USB charge cable--you supply your own cable and phone. And you just _know that shipping is gonna be free, anywhere in the world.Estimated delivery:
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The "I love what you're doing and want all of it!" reward -- You get the Solar Phone Charge Kit and a copy of our book, fresh off the presses. Additionally, we will send you an eight by ten color glossy photograph of the machine you help create, signed robotically by the Pocket Factory. The Phone Charge Kit ships in February '13, and the book ships in September 2013. As always, free international shipping!Estimated delivery:
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Classroom kit--get three Solar Pocket kits and two Solar Explorer kits, enough for ten students to simultaneously tinker and discover new things about solar! Free international shipping!Estimated delivery:
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Friend Of The Sun!--You get the solar charge kit, the book, AND we will write a song in your honor and program the pocket factory's stepper motors to play a digital solo. You can choose from the following premises for the song: (a) what your life would be like if you were a viking, (b) if you were an astronaut, how you would deal with loneliness, or (c) an instrumental electronica piece based on mapping the frequencies from a 2D fourier transform of your facebook profile photo to different scales, played entirely by the Pocket Factory Actuator Orchestra. We include a youtube video of the Pocket Factory playing the song and a printed poster of the algorithmically generated source code that creates the music.Estimated delivery:
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Solar Sea Haiku! -- We mail you an electronic, solar-powered plush sea animal shouting a mildly obscene yet flattering haiku written about you in a language that you do not speak. Also, you get a Solar Phone Charge Kit and a copy of the book, but really, you're in it for the offensive solar-powered stuffed octopus. (sea creature plush toy is at our discretion; a haddock, mantis shrimp, coho salmon, and octopus are all under consideration)Estimated delivery:
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Make Your Mark On Solar--For the first year of Solar Pocket Factory production, you'll get a 1" x 1" space on the back of every panel we ship, and you can fill that space with any image, pattern or text you wish (must be classy). We'll be laser-marking the backs of each solar panel the pocket factory produces to mark down the power output and quality check of the panel, and we'll use this same laser to mark down the image you provide, as well. Naturally, you also get the Solar Phone Charge Kit, a signed copy of the Solar Pocket Factory Book, and something pretty and undisclosed.Estimated delivery:
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World's Best Solar Pocket Party!! We will bring the Solar Pocket Factory to any city, village, or pastureland on this wonderful planet of ours. And we're gonna rent out that pastureland, apartment, industrial building, or airplane hanger (depends on location). And we're gonna throw a two-day solar energy party unheard of since Helios drank so many photons he had to change his name to Apollo. But this isn't just about glorious solar bacchanal. We're gonna have a fully operational Solar Pocket Factory as a centerpiece after all, and that means we are making some solar panels. One hundred solar smartphone chargers to be exact. Made of old bottles of whiskey, 3D printed cases, coasters, potted plants -- solar craft in one giant make, with the Solar Pocket Factory. Oh, and one more thing--Here's where it will take a true visionary, a true humanitarian, and true lover of the sun to grab this reward: All the party goers are gonna paint the town solar. That means we are going to take those 100 solar chargers made in the party and peel-and-stick them around your city. Think solar charging utility, rising from the crowd! Bike racks, lamp posts, friendly coffeeshops -- wherever we can add a solar charger, we will in one glorious night of solar sharing. The idea is these chargers will be geotagged so that people in your town can find them whenever they need a charge. It's a giant experiment in solar power, flashmob-style. Invite up to a fifty of your closest friends -- you have to provide your own transportation and we will provide the rest. We'll be your hosts and help ensure everyone makes a functioning charger and gets them into town for all to benefit from -- and has a weekend to tell their kids about. And we'll provide all the accoutrements that come with a party of this magnitude. + some surprises. We may be geeky, but we know how to throw invention parties. Search "TacoCopter Party" for reference. This reward can be fulfilled anytime between June - Dec 2013; we will do our best to match your schedule request, but message us if you have a very specific date in mind right now so we can confirm it will workEstimated delivery:
- (30 days)