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We are two inventors working to revolutionize the world of small-scale solar panels.  Follow our story and make awesome solar things!
We are two inventors working to revolutionize the world of small-scale solar panels. Follow our story and make awesome solar things!
1,174 backers pledged $77,504 to help bring this project to life.

Solar Pocket Pages 4.25.13: a funny thing happened on the way to the pocket

Good evening, dear pockets.

We shall start with an announcement:

Those of you who got kit rewards should have them or will be receiving them shortly, and Shawn and I thought it would be a good idea to make a forum for people to discuss all things solar. So, we present to you (drumroll, please....), the Solar Pocket Forum!
Both Shawn and I will be reading and posting on the forums. We encourage you all to share your projects, to post and discuss and help one another, and above all, to make wonderful things.

...And now, an update:

It's been quite hard to write with authority about something that we're making up as we go along, but that's the pocket factory story these days. The Solar Pocket Factory has moved into a realm of uncertainty, and Shawn and I are experimenting in real-time with this beast, trying to chart a way through the microsolar murk with a blinky compass and poor visibility.

We got our first full machine making panels on the morning of January of 18th, after an all-nighter hacking on the code and mechanicals that made it work. Three hours after filming the video, we caught a train up to Dongguan to try to sell the machine to a microsolar manufacturer.

Long story short, selling a machine that costs $50,000 is easier said than done. We tried over and over again, but clinching the deal was always a trick. Even more disconcerting was the idea that Shawn and I wouldn't buy a machine for $50k, so we were trying to sell to people who were, well, not-us. This requires an extra degree of sales acumen, and frankly, that's not our strong suit.

Rather than trying to fix the sales, which we didn't like, we decided to muck around with solar panels, which we like very much.  One day in March, Shawn and I were playing around with a laminator, and we happened upon a funny combination of materials: PET film, solettes, EVA and PET film. When we made a sandwich of these materials and ran them through a laminator, we got a solar panel. It was waterproof. It was sturdy. And it worked.

Our current Solar Pocket Factory automates the traditional construction technique for solar panels. The thing is, this is a pretty intricate process--we have to place solettes, coat tabbing in rosin, dispense a certain length of tabbing to connect neighboring solettes and solder the tabbing to the solettes. We can do all this, but each of the steps adds complexity and expense to the machine. What's exciting about the lamination technique is that it's a new process--with this technique, we don't use any tabbing, and we don't solder the solettes. We just have to place the solettes and the end contacts for the panel, and then we run it through a laminator. The pressure of the lamination is enough to hold the solettes in electrical contact. This is a much simpler process, and it means that a machine that builds panels with this process is also much simpler.

Here's an illustrated view of the process:

The astute reader of the Pocket Pages might ask, "wait a second--I thought you tried shingling before! What's different now?"

Well, astute reader, I'm glad you asked. Before, we soldered our shingled solettes together, and this made our panels susceptible to thermal stresses that build up as the panel microscopically expands and contracts as it heats up and cools down. Now, the solettes are pinned together with a lamination, but they are free to slide against one another, keeping those thermal stresses from building.

Here's a more detailed explanation (with pictures!) of the problems with soldered shingling:

Once we had this simple process of shingling and lamination solar panels, Shawn and I started to think about a variant of the Solar Pocket Factory could make these panels. After a bit of doodling, we drew up a machine that we code-named the Basking Shark. This is very similar to the upside-down shingling machine that Shawn shows off in the Science Friday video from ~six months ago. We assemble a shingled panel upside-down onto scotch tape, and then bring in rolls of plastic on either side of the panel and run the whole thing through a laminator to seal it. A continuous strip of working, plastic-encapsulated panels comes out of the end of the laminator, ready to go.

One thing you may notice about this design is a couple little logos on the top right: Creative Commons and Open Hardware. We think of this design as a hackable tool for making and experimenting with solar panels, and we want other people to build off our designs and techniques, add their own ideas into the mix, and continue to share. We yearn to see tons of new ideas around ways to make and use solar panels, and we think a simple, open tool that makes it easy to make lots of solar is a big step in the right direction.

It's not all fancy illustrations, too. These last two weeks have been particularly fruitful ones. We've been up to our elbows in laminators, plastic sheets and solar panels, working out techniques for the perfect lamination, and this ugly tangle of aluminum extrusion and joy is the first Basking Shark prototype:

We still have lots of designing, prototyping and testing to go, but at 5am one morning, after an intense night of hacking, I got the first complete panel placement off the prototype Basking Shark machine. The future is bright!

There's one other big change I want to bring up: I'm going to move out of the Philippines on July 1. I've been in the Philippines for over eleven months, now, and I've come to understand a lot about living and working in the country. One of the main reasons I moved to the Philippines was to be able to work on cleantech projects relevant to the country. I believe that microsolar is a relevant, important technology that can offer a lot to the Philippines, but right now, I'm spending the bulk of my time working on the Solar Pocket Factories that make microsolar, rather than making and distributing microsolar products themselves. At this point in the Pocket Factory's development, most of the people interested in our pocket factories are in the US, China and Europe, we're assembling our latest factories in Hong Kong, and I'm working on the electronics from the Philippines. We are a small team, with limited resources, and we're spread very thin right now. We are reaching a point where we can get not only panels, but accessible pocket factories out into the world, and I want to be able to dedicate the time and effort that the project needs.

Part of my decision is also a personal choice, and that's also important to me.

There are still projects to do in the Philippines, and when the factories are ready, there will be an opportunity to get our microsolar out into the country, but right now, we need to focus on making the machines work and getting them out into the world.

To my friends in the Philippines, to those who helped me move here, who worked with me, advised me, traveled with me, sang beatles songs at 3am, stayed up all night and goofed off with me--marami salamat po.

Comments

    1. Creator Josh Middleman on September 9, 2013

      Alex,
      I saw the bit where you were having trouble with selling a $50k product. Xerox had the same problem in the early days when no one wanted to buy their ridiculously priced machines (that were still quite buggy to boot). The reason we now use the word Xerox interchangeably with photocopy is because they innovated on the business model. Specifically, Xerox offered to lease the machines to companies and included in the lease price tech support. Because of the bugginess, Xerox technicians were on the ground with the product in the field, the learnings from which helped them accelerate up the quality curve improving the machines quickly and significantly.

      Anyway, perhaps a similar business model innovation would work for SPF.

      Best of luck,
      Josh

    2. Creator Jeff McNeill on April 24, 2013

      Where will Alex be moving to?

    3. Creator Rommel Feria on April 24, 2013

      It is so sad to read about this - you are leaving the Philippines. You have inspired a lot of students when you talked at Y4IT last year (and hopefully you will be back in September to have another go). WE have started a summer robotics class for kids http://www.youtube.com/watch… and we are hoping to get more of these. One of the reasons I pushed for this is our talk at Y4IT last year. We need more of you to help drive this in the country. It is unfortunate, but you know how a foreigner has more credibility than a local in the Philippines.

      I am still hoping that we can do something great for the Philippines -- with these solar kits, we can do more.

      Hope you will be back soon.

    4. Creator David Okrent on April 24, 2013

      It is a bit confusing. It sounds like you just trashed all the work and investment that was made in pocket factory. If you are ditching the factory this is a good time to license the technology to someone else or sell the rights out right. Alternatively, you can decide to go with a lease option instead of a purchase of $50K. If you do this you can set up with a finance company or handle it yourself. In this option they would pay $55K to $60K over a 12 month period. With 10% or 20% down on signing. This would move the factory out of being capital equipment for some companies to an operational budget which requires less corporate planning and approvals.

    5. Creator SonofSum1 on April 24, 2013

      It's been a fascinating journey you two have been on. Thanks for the in depth updates and time taken to elaborate on all aspects of your work both technical and otherwise. I've found it really informative and interesting. Definitely the best / most favourite kickstarter project I've backed. All the best on future endeavours.

    6. Creator Alex Hornstein on April 24, 2013

      oy, the forum link got scrapped when I sent the first email. Sorry! It's at http://solarpocketfactory.com/pages/forum#/