Many of you have suggested to cover topics about small scale manufacturing and turning an idea into built product. We did not need to look far, there is one example of such project in our Library - the foldable snowshoes called SnowXu. We talked to James Page about the project.
Popular and hot buzzwords such as small scale manufacturing, 3D printing, open source and crowd funding have in the past couple of years created a platform where any person with original idea can actually end up having the product developed, manufactured and marketed, all that without huge investments into infrastructure, materials and marketing.
James Page, one of GrabCAD's engineers, had a friend Deb Kreutzer with an idea - to invent snow shoes that could be folded, compact and packable to put in your backpack and ready to carry with little trouble. In 2006 Deb approached James' product design company with the idea for a "swiss army boot", a boot with ice skate blades that would fold out, a crampon that could pop out and also snowshoe parts that could spring into action when needed. After some research James realized that a product like that 'would need to have a $300 to $500 pricetag and the market for an "all-in-one" device was relatively small'. Some more brainstorming and the team realized that the valuable part of the idea was even simpler: foldable snowshoes.
Those who have not tried nor seen, snowshoes enable walking in deep snow in winter, or watery bogs by spreading the body weight over larger ground contact area than normal shoes. They can be extremely useful and fun, but are usually bulky and take a lot of space.
James had the experience. He had done a lot of work on snowshoes for a few other snowshoe companies in the past including Atlas/K2. He had designed bindings and cleats for their 10, 12 and Elektra series snowshoes. Add a few other projects between 2000 and 2004 and the fact that James had never heard any of the companies thinking about creating a truly foldable snowshoe - making all this reasonable enough to try to create a design of your own.
James and his team of product designers at Page Product Design did several rounds of brainstorming and came up with over 100 ideas including about 10 plausible ways of making the snowshoes actually fold. They prototyped four different ideas and after months of work finally arrived at the best synergy between small folded size, simple design, and full-snowshoe function.
As the saying goes, good ideas are worthless without good execution. It took the next two years to go through four design and prototype iterations and to learn a huge amount about what it really takes to make the folding/unfolding easy. James' expertise in snowshoe binding design also came handy to create the simplest possible binding that would have only a single buckle and would go on in seconds. The author of the original idea, Deb patented the ideas the team developed together and tried to license the design to a few of the leading snowshoe companies. However, possibly due to the economic conditions in 2008 none of the companies took notice nor offered a deal.
A couple of years passed, more and more people kept asking where they could buy the foldable snowshoes. It took a large number of pre-orders and hundreds of people expressing interest before the decision was finally made to start a company, produce and market the idea. And so the SnowXu foldable snowshoe was born.
After the engineering and design work and the preparation for manufacturing was done, the team decided to launch a Kickstarter project to find people interested in snowshoes for the remaining sets of the first production batch, and to cover some of the costs. The first SnowXu snowshoes should be on sale in mid-January.
Although not ready yet, this project is an excellent example of how to turn a niche idea that the bigger players in the market have not thought of into an actual product. Good products often find their owners by word of mouth/personal recommendations, so had James not shared the snowshoe drawings, we'd probably have never crossed these innovative pieces of outdoor equipment.
As always, we recommend to leave James any improvement ideas. Or ask any questions that were left uncovered in this post. What we'd really like to see is more of such small scale manufacturing projects to come live and that we can cheer for!