limited production :: hand crafted :: high performance :: rechargeable :: premium flashlights

This is my blog about creating a startup LED flashlight business. I'm a designer, fabricator, and strategist and I'm passionate about making ideas real. I believe that products are about people, that they should be built to last, deliver real value, and that we need to do a better job than we have in the recent past.

Most of my career has been contract or freelance work and I've crafted products and strategies for both big international companies and startups. I also used to work in the "industry" fabricating special effects for film and TV, along with the occasional hot rod. Bottom line, I love making things.

I'm starting this blog so you can follow along, from day one, and see what it's like to start a business, or fail in the process. Only time will tell, but I hope you find this interesting enough to stay tuned, comment, link, like, tweet, and (most importantly) participate in turning this idea into something tangible and valuable.

For a good place to get started with general info about who, what, why, etc., check out the "Stickies" on the left side of the page. Thanks for stopping by and please don't hesitate to ask questions and get involved!

Please sign up for my email list to get updates and notifications for contests and giveaways!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Ask a question, get an answer!


Hi folks, I created a sticky on the left side of the page as a place for people to ask questions. Pretty simple really but don't hesitate to fire away. Then I won't have to sit here and wonder what to write for my next post.

Over here.

Okay, this is a previous post that I'm bumping to the top...and may continue to do so. But I'm sweetening the pot...with a contest! I was listening to this Freakonomics podcast and it gave me an idea. Call it a lottery if you want, cause that's what it is. Here is how this works.
  1. Post a question in the "questions" section.
  2. If it's a good enough question I'll turn it into a stand-alone blog post.
  3. Once I get ten questions that turn into blog posts, I'll randomly choose one of those questions (and its author) out of a hat and they will get a free flashlight + charger + battery. I haven't set pricing yet but you can expect the retail price to be north of $200 bucks. 
  4. This offer will be open for 30 days and will close on March 1, 2011.
  5. If I don't get 10 post-ables in 30 days, then...I'll re-think this whole thing. 

Friday, January 28, 2011

Tools for tools: Making a saw stop


One of the most common uses for tools, is making other tools. At least that's the joke among machinists...we don't actually make stuff, we just make tools. I'm not sure the previous was a complete sentence, but I recently had the need to up the ante on my efficiency. Each light has four main components that need to be machined. So, if I am making a batch of 20 lights, that makes 80 pieces of stock that I need to cut off from 10-12 foot bars. Kind of a pain, and 20 is a pretty small number. Time to make a depth stop for my chop saw.

The DeWalt Multi-Cutter is a low RPM chop saw
designed specifically for metal cutting. 
I made the stand for the saw back in welding school when I was living in Boston. Remember that Tushar? In any case, it's served me well but it's time for an upgrade. Most of my work is "one-sies" or "two-sies" so measuring each cut isn't that big of a deal. One of my quirks; however, is that I hate repetitive work...but love refining processes. That is to say, I can handle some repetition if I'm always learning something and working to make it better.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

DtD Update: Soft jaws are finished!

Got the soft jaws finished up yesterday! Now it's time to start cutting some parts and tweak the programming. I've already done the body machining and tailcap machining. Today I'm going to be working on the head and the small copper post that holds the electronics.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Like my glasses?

Today I went to the SPIE Photonics West trade show with Skip Adrian from Laser Center/Edge Finder. Exciting right! There is a lot of stuff there I don't understand but I chatted with a few suppliers about creating custom optics for my lights. I'm going to need some traction before I can afford custom manufacturing, but I've found a lot of off the shelf optics just aren't that good, even though they are designed for the LED's I'm using.

I do some consulting work for Skip. I designed the polarizing attachment for his tool that allows the laser spot to be "focused" into a much smaller dot. His tools are used for setting up and aligning CNC and manual machine tools. If you are a machinist you should check out his site! I use one (well, several) on both my manual and CNC mill. It can turn a five minute setup routine into a 30 second setup routine

He was tracking down some new line generating lenses and I was taking up the valuable time of many companies that I will never buy anything from...but they make such cool stuff! Yes, I'm a tech geek if that isn't already painfully obvious. You should have seen the mini-displays: 1280x960 pixels in a package less than an inch square! Not cheap.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

DtD Update: machining soft jaws

So I'm starting this Day to Day (DtD) Update thing so you can see the drudgery associated with the bright lights and big city stuff. 

I had to have some bearings replaced on my mill before I could get to making actual parts. That was finished last week and I've been doing the last of the programming. So far I have about 70 separate programs to make this little light. That means there are 70 "operations"...not including the manual operations. For example: cutting all of the stock to length, sanding down the edges so they are smooth and even, etc. More on that in a future post. Suffice to say, there is a lot of work to do outside of the actual machining. Most of it is manual, and this is the kind of labor that kills product margins.

Soft jaws before machining
So yesterday and the day before I have been cutting the "soft jaws" that will hold my components that need to be machined. They need to be extremely precise and one mistake means they are ruined. Each jaw will have five separate locations that is five chances to wreck the whole thing. Ask me how I know.

Monday, January 24, 2011

HELP: Getting connected to Facebook?!


Don't get ahead of yourself. YES I already have a Facebook page.  My question is slightly more sophisticated than "how do I create an account"...slightly.

So, hello people more expert in social media! Part of the plan with this blog (and product) is to reach as many people as possible. That's the point of advertising right? Facebook is one of the cheapest and most connected tools out I might as well leverage it.

Something like 500 million users and counting? That's a pretty good potential customer pool. For starters, they all use the internet and when my first production run goes up for sale it will be online. Nice, my first layer of segmentation. Anyway, my primary question is about "step 2" Facebook connectedness.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

What you should know about batteries

High quality batteries are the life-blood of any flashlight. This might sound obvious, but buying cheap batteries is often a "go-to" cost cutting measure. There is a reason you don't put cheap gas in a Ferrari, it won't run right. There are a lot of lithium-ion rechargeable batteries on the market with a vast range of quality. Cheap lithium batteries are at best unreliable; and at worst dangerous.

If it doesn't say AW then don't put it in your light. 
Fortunately I've eliminated the guesswork for you. AW lithium-ion flashlight batteries are simply the best you can buy, period. They are the only brand I'll sell along with one of my lights and I don't recommend that you put any other brand in there. If you are a flashlight expert, then do what you want. If not, trust me.

Friday, January 21, 2011

More prototype images

Everyone likes pictures right? The first prototype for this style light (this post) was revised three or four times, but that process became tedious and didn't allow me to do any side by side comparisons. About a month ago I made up a batch of six identical chassis to test two different LED's and a variety of optics.

Three of the lights are all aluminum and three have brass heads. The brass ads a lot of weight, expense, and steam-punk factor. Anyone like the brass? In practice, people fall into two camps:
  1. The brass makes it way too heavy.
  2. The brass gives it a nice solid weight.
Perhaps the subject of a future poll? In the meantime, feel free to comment on whether you are the "nice and light" type or the "like some swing weight" type. Without further ado.

The surface of these lights are all in an unfinished state, straight off the lathe.
Only four of the six made it into this photo shoot. I didn't have a specific "design" in mind, just playing with different types of grooving tools that I have.  At some point I hope to get around to making samples finished with bead blasting, brushing, polishing, or maybe combinations of different surface finishes. 

More photos after the jump!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

It's alive! CNC test program (video)


As you know I've been programming like crazy. This video is a test program for the machining of the flashlight body. Two parts are held in the vice at a time. The one on the left is "tail up" and the one on the right is "head up." In other words the tailcap will screw into the part on the left and the head will screw onto the part at the right. After the tail gets machined, the same part is flipped upside down and transferred to the right hand position. Confusing enough?

These parts are only 2 inches tall. The actual flashlight body is 4 inches tall. I'm running these "short" test parts to work out any bugs in the programming without wasting a lot of material. You will notice the machine spindle starts and stops and the coolant goes on and off more than it should. That's because each operation is a separate program and I'm using a master program to call them all as subroutines. Don't worry if that doesn't make sense. That's what the "machining content" warning was all about :) Eventually I'll delete the M09 and M05 codes from the individual programs and that will prevent all the erroneous starts and stops.

So, machine tool geeks...enjoy in HD! That's you Bishop. Oh, and for you people in the real world, here in Silicon Valley "geek" is a flattering term :)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Can't see in the dark? Push this button. (beam shots)

I'm sure some people are wondering, "What's the big deal? I already have a flashlight." Unless you are super-enthusiast you haven't seen anything like this before. Here are the main features of the lights I'm building.
  1. Lithium Ion rechargeable batteries
  2. Massive power
  3. Pocket sized (1.2" x 5.5")
  4. Looks awesome
  5. You can't just go buy one in a store
  6. Will impress your friends
  7. Custom made, by me
So, I went out the other night to shoot some sample beam shots to compare my lights to some off the shelf lights. Here is the lineup:

The red light on the left is a standard 2D cell Maglite.

The black light is a "high powered" dive light that uses 6 C cell batteries.

The green light is a production light from Icon. It's a LED powerd by 2 AA batteries. This light is typical of "super bright LED lights" you will find in retail stores.

The three lights on the right are my prototype custom built lights. They use a single lithium ion rechargable battery. Each one has the same LED but different types of optics, which accounts for the different shape beams in the following photos.

Beam shots are after the jump so "read more!"

Saturday, January 15, 2011

POLL: Is packaging important?


So here is something that I've been wrestling with from a business and product standpoint. I've heard a fair number of people say..."wow this would be great with a really nice box or something." This of course makes me think of Apple and the high praise for their packaging. Here is a photo in case you don't live in Silicon Valley and weren't issued an iSomething when you moved here.

Image courtesy of Apple Insider

Should my premium flashlights come with premium packaging? 

Should I offer packaging?


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Programming, lots of programming

CNC machines operate on sets of commands written in a language called "G-Code." It's pretty simple by programming standards, but it is a language. One of the great advantages of the digital age is that software can do pretty much all of the work for you. Put your 3D model into a CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) program, some pointing and clicking, and the software spits out code that may contain hundreds or thousands of lines.

Anyway, here is what G-Code looks like. Doesn't make any sense does it?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

New (to me) Haas VF-1 CNC Mill

In November I decided to machine a set of six lights. Other than being able to test different components side-by-side, it would allow me to get a handle on the amount of time invested in each one, and how efficient I could be on the operations side. The plan I came up with was really smooth and I don't think I could save much more time. It took about 10 hours to make each light. Yep, that's a lot.

So, working full time and then some (60 hrs a week) I could pump out 24 lights a month. This wasn't going to cut it, because I need time for things like writing this blog. It became apparent fairly quickly that if I was serious about making lights then I was going to need some more serious hardware.

If anyone needs a rigger in the Bay Area, Curtis Roybal is the man. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

It all started when...

I'm having a hard time deciding how much history to go into. I think the foundation for this project was laid when I was ten or so years old. That might be a little too far. Let's try August of 2010. I had just finished school and the lease on my industrial space was up. The decision was:
  1. Pack up and sell off/store all of my shop equipment...then get a real job, you know, with a desk
  2. Move into a smaller space and find some way for the shop to pay for more than just the rent
In any case, I packed up all my stuff and moved house. Here is all my junk on the back of a truck. Probably only about 10,000 lbs. worth. 

I was horrified to find my shop almost takes up an entire semi truck. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

"What stops me from going to a "big box" and buying a flashlight for five dollars?"

This is the most common question I get when I tell someone I'm planning to make and sell flashlights, so I thought it would make a good opener.

The short answer: nothing.

The longer answer: if that's how you feel after trying my light...then you probably aren't one of my customers.

SSC-P7 900 Lumen Prototype

That sounds totally rude, but that's not my intent at all. I don't expect to sell a light to every person in my neighborhood.

But if you want to's 20-50 times brighter, rechargeable, cool looking, and only a few people in the world will ever own one. If you aren't into that then there probably isn't anything I can say to convince you. My selling proposition isn't "low prices, everyday." My selling proposition is "way more awesome than you have ever seen before." Can you dig it?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Hello World...

Well, this makes it official. I'm building flashlights, really awesome flashlights. I'm doing all of the production work (design, machining, assembly) in my fabrication shop in Mountain View. In the short to mid-term lights will be produced in limited quantities; batches of 20-30 lights. They'll be available on a first come first serve basis.

Prototype V1
There will never really be a "production" light. A typical product gets fully engineered and then released out into the wild. Not here. Every batch will represent a constant evolution of learning and customer feedback. Because I'm doing small runs, my development cycle will be month-to-month, not year-to-year like larger companies.