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!

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Monday, February 28, 2011

Cheryl's question answered!...with a question

cheryl said...
"One of my concerns is dependabiity, warranty and repair. Seeing that this is your first attempt at custom flashlight building, what assurances would we have that these light will perform as advertised? Being a one-man operation, I can foresee the possibility of you being overwhelmed if things don't go as planned. 
After reading your resume and accomplishments, I am quite impressed and have great confidence in your abilities. However, this endeavor of yours is monsterous and I would want a guarantee of the light's performance before I purchased."

So, I wrote a big long blabedy blah blog post in response. I deleted it. Let's try something different. What do YOU (as a customer) want the guarantee/warranty to be? That means anyone reading this by the way. Also, try and put yourself in my shoes: what do you think is sensible/reasonable to offer from a business standpoint?

Personally, I'd like my guarantee/warranty policy to be: "no reasonable request denied" I stole that line from Mark Dwight at Rickshaw Bagworks. I like it because it implies the company and the customer are in it together...not that the company is there to "serve" the customer.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this one and it's a hard answer. It's also the kind of issue where consumers and businesses often find themselves at odds. One of the reasons I'm writing this blog and speaking in the first person is that I represent myself...and I'm trying to manage expectations. You are right, this is a one man operation and I hope my customers will relate to me as an individual and not like a faceless corporation. I'm also a little old fashioned in the keep your word, do your best, deal on a handshake kind of way. I want to attract like minded customers.

A couple more thoughts after the jump but PLEASE WEIGH IN ON THIS ONE !!! :)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

DtD Update: Supply chain woes

Hey everyone. Here is a little hiccup: the company I buy my LED drivers from is out of stock till at least mid-March. After completing my pre-production run of 19 lights...I used up all the drivers I had on hand. This was basically a "proving out" run to make sure the plating process worked like I planned, check clearances/fitment, and see how the different surfaces finishes turned out.

I'm starting on my first production run of 20 lights that will be serial numbers 1-20. I should have all the machining done and the next batch off to the plating company by the end of the week...but I'm basically sitting on my hands till I get more drivers.

My bench during the pre-production build out
This is both a common sense and a new business issue. Instead of ordering what I need for the next batch, I've taken note and (though I can't afford it because I don't have the cash flow from sales) ordered a bunch of supplies that I'll need to get through the next 50 lights or so: LED's, batteries, chargers, optics, switches, wire, and rubber switch covers. Things that take time to get delivered or things that I'm not confident will be in stock.

To add to the fun, the aspheric lenses I've been using have been out of stock for about two months. I'm trying to find of if "out of stock" is a permanent condition or not. Fortunately I have a stable supply of LEDs and Boom reflectors...but I have to order them from Austraila which takes about two weeks. :)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Jayson's Question Answered!

Jayson A. said...
"Besides the mechanical aspect of light making, are you considering getting into or partnering with someone who can program to make the UI? I mean, the UI is really important nowadays."

I would love to have my own custom drivers made some day. I'm going to need to sell a fair number of lights before this is possible though. Ideally, custom drivers would be exactly the same size as the current drivers. They could be upgraded by the user, or sent back to me for an upgrade.

Unless you are a flashaholic you probably don't give much thought to flashlight UI (User Interface). The most common flashlight UI is an on/off button. However, we live in the age of micro controllers and the on/off button (or twisting action) becomes an access point and not just a simple switch.

Apple knows good UI
UI is an interesting design challenge and I agree that a good UI is critically important. The problem is...they sky's the limit when you start using programmable controllers. A lot of interfaces are VERY programmable and correspondingly complicated...I think that is excessively complicated for the average user. You thought setting the time on your VCR was hard?

My philosophy is that simple is better. It's just a flashlight. In all, I think the current interface is very solid for a general purpose light. 3 modes and a simple switching scheme. Is it ideal? No. Does it work well? Yes. Who knows what the future holds though!

Friday, February 25, 2011

I'm a (reformed) idiot

So I had a moment of clarity recently. Some current students from my old MBA program sent out a survey on rechargeable batteries. Expecting to feel really smart in a few minutes I dove into the questions because I assumed we'd be talking about really specialized batteries that I use in some of my lights. It didn't take long before I realized "feeling smart" was totally going the other way. The questions were all about "standard" rechargeable batteries like AA, AAA, C, and D size batteries. You know...the ones we use all the time? I hadn't given those any thought in years!

Somehow, over the last several years, I've totally let "standard" rechargeable batteries slip my mind. I have a well stocked drawer full of disposable alkaline batteries. I often buy the "big pack" of AA's when I see a good price...cause I'm smart right? Nope. So why doesn't my drawer contain exactly zero AA batteries because all of my AA devices are filled with rechargeable AA batteries and I don't need extras?

Sanyo Eneloops are considered to be "best of breed" and will
store 6 times longer than a typical NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) battery.
Good question. I did some self reflection and I realized I have been actively ignoring "standard" rechargeable batteries because of past experience with NiCad (Nickel Cadmium) batteries of yore.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Behind the scenes: site statistics

Hi folks, so I hope that from time to time I can show you some behind the scenes stuff that companies don't think about showing the public, or even things that are considered "confidential and proprietary." My plan is to be as transparent as possible for fun, educational purposes, and so you can get a sense of what starting your own venture feels like. (hint: right now it feels scary/fun/easy/impossible) This is no big deal but here is a brief look at my web stats since I launched the blog.

Blogger's web stats or good but if you install Google Analytics...even better
In many ways the number of visits and pageviews is comically low. I would like to say this image is "tad" dated and I'm up to about 5,700 page views as of today. See, I have a complex about showing you my page views...but I'll press on. I keep telling myself that 5,000 is a lot more than zero :)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Finished parts from the plating company

I'm a little behind on the blog and I've been using the last few days of being sick to try and catch up. It's really hard to divide my time between the shop and sitting at home typing :) In any case I sent out some parts to get plated a few days ago and now I have them back!

Ready to go and hoping for no damage on the other end of the process
Aluminum is incredibly soft and nicks, scratches, and dings if you look at it wrong. Drop a part on the floor and it's probably headed for the recycling bin. It's also incredibly difficult to get all these parts through all the various machining and finishing steps without damaging them. THEN I have to send them out to get plated and the same rules apply for the folks handing the parts at Amex Plating. Fortunately they always do an amazing job. You'll have to read on after the jump to see the results :)

Erik's question answered

Erik E said...
"Jason, What do you see as the "opportunity space" in this (lighting) market? Both in terms of "un-met user needs" and emerging "technological affordances" that are expanding the bounds of the possible?
It looks like you are pushing into both these areas. If you had greater resources, what additional capabilities would you like to have so you could develop further into the leading edge of this space?"

Hey Erik, I guess I've already answered some of your questions tangentially in other posts. However, I think an opportunity exists because of the combination of "unmet user needs" and "technological affordances." In other words, the technology is making it possible to meet new user needs.

Everything is a matter of perspective. Sometimes not having the technology makes it hard to see needs which that unknown (or simply new) technology might address. Take cars for example; when they first appeared on the road a lot of people were still asking, "why would you need to travel faster than a train or horse?" Just three or four years ago it was unfathomable that a single LED could produce over 750 lumens, let alone a small hand held light. I think we are just beginning to understand the possibilities.

The next factor, from an economic standpoint, is the cost/availability of that technology. Many markets follow the "sweet spot" example I'll give, and the LED lighting market is now in the sweet my opinion. They easiest example is the cell phone. There was a tipping point, in the past, that allowed the cell phone to become mainstream. I attribute this to the pure economics of, not only the final consumer cost, but the cost of the ancillary resources required to support the final capacity, battery energy density, individual mobility, the internet, etc.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Seth's question answered!

SethML said...

"How is this more than just some batteries, an LED, and a switch stuck in a fancy housing? Now's your chance to talk about Lithium-Ion battery charging/balancing, constant-current LED drivers, brightness modes, etc!"

In many ways these lights are exactly what you describe, and assemblage of components. However, I think these lights are unique on two levels. One, I make every one by hand. Two, there are a lot of components out there in the world and I've selected the absolute best and integrated them into an incredibly optimized, high-performance system. The only way these lights will get better is when I have enough volume to justify designing and manufacturing the components I currently buy off the shelf.

Exploded View: click the image for a super size version
I've already posted on batteries and chargers so you can navigate to those links for more info. Suffice to say battery technology has come an incredibly long way in the last five years. Modern li-ion batteries have no memory and significant energy density. If it was a car it would have both a huge gas tank and tons of horsepower.

Modern batteries are also capable of extremely high current output when compared to standard alkaline batteries. LED lights that run on alkalines (most LED lights on the market) are low output because alkaline batteries simply can't deliver the current needed to motivate a high power LED into releasing its lumens.

Monday, February 21, 2011

First sales are just around the corner...

Hi folks,

I'm a little behind on the blog. Partly working faster than expected last week and partly slowed down by a sore throat this week. I spent most of the weekend working on a very simple site that will be a companion to the blog...the online store!

A screen shot from the new landing page
I'm not a graphic designer at all, so I always shoot for "inoffensive" as opposed to "really good" or something like that. So, excuse the graphic design. When I have a fist full of dollars I'll get some professional help. I've got some "pre production" lights that I just got back from the plating company. More explanation will follow.

I'll be assembling them this week and offering them for sale. A portion of those lights are also getting sent out to my first round of "test users" so stay tuned!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Anatomy of a push button tailcap

Things are often more complicated than they seem. The tailcap might seem straightforward, but it's been a challenge to get just right. There are lots of dimensional tolerances and lots of machining operations on this one little piece. I'm also integrating two products from two different manufacturers: the rubber tailcap boot and the actual switch.

Different stages of assembly from left to right:
cap, boot, o-rings/spacers, and switch
A couple of fiber washers and an o-ring are needed to give the switch the proper "stand-off" from the little rubber nub inside the switch boot. The correct clearance is +/- 0.015 inches. Thats about the thickness of five sheets of paper. I am surprised at how sensitive the clearance is.

Read on after the jump for some more detailed shots.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Kathryn's question answered!

Kathryn said...

"What are your adjacent markets? Do you plan on only doing flashlights even a few years out? Will you be expanding into other markets like theater lighting?"

The blanket answer to all of your questions is, "Who knows?" Okay, I actually have better answers for adjacent markets. Honestly, anything that requires a light source. Some obvious choices are specialty applications like dive lights, bike lights, head lamps, and other standard stuff. Probably some money to be made there, but there is also a lot of competition.

This is a smart-alecky graphical answer to the question of horizontal markets...
but take a look at the larger image. It's actually incredibly fascinating. For one,
take note of China's population and how little lighting there is. 
I'm more financially and philosophically interested in markets that have relatively low competition in the LED space: fixed outdoor lighting, interior lighting, industrial lighting, marine lighting, automotive lighting, and as you suggest, theatrical lighting. For me, the flashlight market is a strategic entry point into the market pictured in the photo above.

DtD Update: Extraction tool


I have two parts that get pressed together for a semi-permanent assembly: the head and the copper sleeve that holds the LED driver circuit board. The press fit provides good electrical and thermal contact between the two parts. It's great once it's assembled...but how do you get it apart?

A "press fit" is when two parts are pressed together that have dimensions
that overlap very slightly. This can also be called an "interference fit." 
Funny, I asked myself the same question when it came time to remove a driver from a prototype. I knew in theory that I could pull it out, but how?I got the idea from Skip Adrian at Laser Center/Edge Finder. I just happened to have an appropriate pair of vise grips on hand that I could sacrifice to make a special tool.

Read on for more gruesome details...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Kate's question answered!

katerw said...
"Who is your customer? Or customers? Have you profiled/interviewed the type of person you imagine using your product?"

To answer your last question first: yes and no.

The "yes" side actually explains why I got into this in the first place. The short version: about nine months ago I started working on an old project for a canister-style dive light targeted at the commercial/military/technical diving community. In order to get familiar with the in's and out's of light design and manufacturing I came up with a small prototype light. I started showing it to people and the response was almost universal: "Holy smokes, that is incredible, can I buy one?!"

Virtually no one has ever seen anything so bright in such a small package. I decided to go where the interest was and abandon dive lights (for the time being) and decided to focus on small hand held lights for every day use. I normally work on super niche products, so excitement from the general public was pretty catalyzing. That response is a lot more rewarding than the usual, "errr....riiiiight....that sounds nice." If it's dark out I don't even have to give a "product pitch," I just push a button on the end of this cylinder thingy.

This is the light that got everything started
On the "no" side, my research has not been extensive and I don't have a ton of resources at my disposal. Any individual starting a business is in the same position. This is a significant factor in my decision to start the blog in the first place. In order to be efficient, I decided to try and bring people to me instead of seeking them out one by one. I hope to attract a user community that will help me understand the market, new technologies, and user needs on an ongoing basis.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

New hotness: opinions?

Hi folks, I've been playing around with different surface finishes and I came up with the light pictured below. The body is bead blasted, grooves cut afterwards, and the head and tailcap are high polished. I really like it! So what do you, dear readers, think about this style?

Unfortunately this requires about the most hand finishing as humanly possible. There are ways to make batch processing easier, like vibratory tumbling, but I'll need 3-4 tumblers to the tune of about $750 bucks each. Not exactly the cheap route. I'll have to give this some serious thought. I might also have to start out making lights that have less finishing involved until I can justify the capital expenditure.

And an extra hour of hand finishing?...Check!
It also seems like it might be a bad idea to show all of the things I've been trying in case one is the clear favorite and I'm not in a position to immediately deliver it. (See above) After all, this kind of stuff usually takes place in some back room and the consumer never gets to see what is going on. Partly I hope this behind the scenes look will be interesting, but I also hope people will get excited about the process.

The appearance of production batches will be varied and represent a constant evolution. I don't expect there will be a "final design" until the distant future. Being limited production, I'll be producing small batches of different designs. Some may be "one time only" and others might get repeated. This will be driven by both customer response and whatever I'm excited about at the moment.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Flashlight uses: oops I broke a glass

So this application was discovered by accident but it's incredibly effective. Actually, Lori discovered it by accident :) A glass fell off the dining table and hit the floor with a substantial crash. Little sugar like shards were scattered all over the floor. You know the drill. Even after the usual sweeping and swabbing with a wet paper towel we kept finding new shards. Now what? Flashlights to the rescue!

A few strategically placed lights made it incredibly easy to spot the remaining pieces of glass. You can't really see in the photos but the shards would sparkle like crazy. I once saw a similar method used to check the flatness of a granite surface plate but that used grains of salt and lasers...another story. Anyway, just thought I'd share because it is both novel and worked like a charm. Part of what makes it effective is the wide beam angle and the massive intensity. Thanks Lori!

Monday, February 14, 2011

What you should know about chargers

Disclaimer: this is not my primary area of expertise so I don't claim to be an expert. I've spent many hours researching the topic and this is what I've found so far.

Chargers are a critical component with respect to lithium ion batteries. Very critical. There are a lot of chargers out there and based on my research, I can only recommend two. The first is the Pila IBC. Bar none, this charger has the best reputation. However, it charges 2 cells at a time and retails for nearly 50 dollars. 

I selected the Xtar MP1 charger because it's high quality.
Only one other charger compares, but it's twice the price and thrice as ugly. 
The second is the Xtar MP1. This is the charger I'll be selling along with my lights. Xtar is a relatively new company but so far their product seems to be top notch. I like the industrial design and this charger has the advantage (unlike the Pila) of being USB based. This means you can plug it into your laptop, use a wall adapter, or even a car adapter for charging. I like this flexibility for a general purpose charger. The MP1 is also a single bay charger and this is great for the more casual user that only owns a few lights. I purchase these directly from the manufacturer and will be selling these chargers separately and as a package deal with my lights. 

If you want to get more technical, read on after the jump. If are a hardcore "input" person you can check out Battery University for tons (and tons) of information.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Alex's question answered!

In case you can't tell I'm trying to knock out some of these questions!

Alex said...
"PS... Dark does suck. My question is... is "focused beam" the way to tackle the suckiness. Maybe "make a 5 foot diameter around me feel like the day"... Just a thought."

Actually, a lot of people ask about focusing. It's one of the top five questions I think. Darn you Maglite! Here is my take (special applications aside). For general "I can't see in the dark" use, these lights are so powerful you get both long range throw and close range flood all at the same time. It basically makes focusing obsolete (special applications aside).

As four your special request, "make a 5 foot diameter around me feel like the day." Would you settle for a 10 foot diameter of day? That's all I got.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Stanley's question answered!

Stanley said...

"Was talking to Kingston tonight... he wants to get a flashlight for testing. Wanted to know how long the batteries last in the different power modes."

I haven't done any run time testing yet so my values are approximate and based on calculations with 80% driver efficiency. 80% is also a best guess for this type of linear LED driver, but it's pretty conservative so I'm hoping actual run times will be equal to, or better than, what I've listed below. Does anyone want (or know how) to test my driver efficiency?  

High (500 lumens) = 90 minutes @ 2.8 Amps
Medium (180 lumens) = 250 minutes @ 1.0 Amps
Low (30 lumens) = 1,800 minutes @ .14 Amps

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Monday, February 7, 2011

srfreddy's question answered!


srfreddy said:

"In your "DtD Update: surprising success!" post, the shot is the head, right? Does the head and the tailcap screw off? I'm interested in your heatsinking. The driver is on a copper "pole" of sorts, which isolates the driver, and will concentrate heat, and how is the heatsink for the LED itself? I see you are using 7135 linear drivers-how many? If a user decides to use 2xCR123s or RCRs, the 7135s will be putting out over 5 watts of heat!"

Yes, that's an image of the back of the head. Both the head and tailcap unscrew from the body. 

The driver in this photo is a Shiningbeam 1.4A driver
I'm using a Shiningbeam 3 mode 2.8 amp driver that has components on both sides of the board. The copper sleeve is actually the heat-sink for the driver. This sleeve is press fit into the back of the head. The LED is on a 20mm star and thermally bonded to a solid, one-piece aluminum my expectation is the thermal path is about as good as it can get without soldering the LED directly to a copper pill.

You can check the Shiningbeam site for driver specs but I think it accepts a maximum of 6 volts, so you can use 2x CR123 (primary) batteries but you can not use 2x RCR123 (rechargeable) batteries. However, I'm not sure that CR123 primaries can handle that much current draw. Someone else might have to weigh in on that one!

This is really intended to be an 18650 light. 

Kendall's question answered!


Kendall the CarpentryHero said...

"Will you make your flashlights with an upgradeable, replaceable Pill like a better version of the P60 and host idea. An upgradeable light even if I'm mailing it in for the upgrade ;-) ?"

Sort of! For those of you that aren't familiar with the terminology, a flashlight "pill" is a component comprised of an LED emitter, driver electronics, and a metallic body to hold those components and act as a heat sink. Sometimes the pill is combined with a reflector to create a "drop in" module. A P60 module is an industry standard size so P60 pills should fit into any P60 host. This is actually an interesting concept and I may do a P60 format light in the future.

A section view of the light head. The walls of the copper
sleeve are actually thicker than what is depicted here.
My current design does not use a "pill" for a few reasons...that I might get into in another post. Suffice to say I think using an LED mounted on a 20mm star MCPCB (Metal Core Printed Circuit Board) is the best option, for me, at this time. The head is a solid, one-piece design to maximize thermal transfer.

One of my primary design principles is "design for disassembly and repair." So yes, these lights will most definitely have the ability to be upgraded with newer LEDs or electronics. One reason I went with the MCBCB is that it makes it really easy for me to swap out LEDs. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Prototype production run: update

I took these shots on Friday but didn't get around to posting them. I've finished the CNC portion on the bodies, tailcaps, and PCB sleeves. I still have to finish the heads on the CNC and then do some manual machining and surface finishing.

Flashlight bodies hot off the CNC
I think I mentioned this before, but I'll take these bodies to the manual lathe to finish the outside diameter and do the ornamental grooving. Only the ends have been worked by the CNC machine at this point. This is mostly a progress update and there are a couple more photos after the jump.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Added email subscription sign up --------->

So, I'm trying to figure out an easy way for people to stay up to date. I've sent this out to a lot of people that don't really follow blogs and don't use RSS. Some of them have asked if there is an easy way to get periodic updates so they don't forget to check back.

This Google Forms is my temporary "kludge" until I can figure out a real email list client. So if you sign up here I'll try and send out a weekly reminder of any new content. In the short term this will be an ugly text email. In the future it will be nice and pretty with photos and probably be entirely automated.

This blogging stuff actually takes a lot of time. It's stopped me before. I mean, who has time for this? So, if you sign up I'll know people are interested and that will motivate me to keep the content coming. Deal? Just follow this link and fill out the form!

Also, a shout out to Adam for setting it up, Thanks!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Prototype production run is under way!

These shots are actually from yesterday. Today I finished the CNC machining of 30 flashlight bodies. When finished, ten of these are heading out into the field for some user testing. 

I haven't picked the testers yet but I'll make an announcement about the same time I complete final assembly of the lights, so stay tuned!

(if you want to get the chance to do cool things like test future designs, be sure and sign up for my email list!)

Anyway, back to nitty gritty. My saw stop worked great and I spent time cutting stock to length while the machine was running parts. I also have to deburr the edge on every part (one end) so that there isn't any interference when clamping the parts in the vise. We need everything to be nice and straight.

Chicago Pneumatic right angle die grinder with an 80 grit abrasive disk
and a bunch of parts waiting to be deburred. 
Right now I'm using the red air grinder with an abrasive disk to deburr...hold the part in left hand, grinder in right hand, rotate part a couple of times. Not real slow, not real fast, but it's on of the things I might need to make more efficient in the future.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

WIN!: driver mounting problem...solved

Yesterday was a good day in the shop! The last component I've been hesitating on is a little copper sleeve that holds the LED driver. The typical solution, and the one I have used on past prototypes, is to solder the edge of the board to the edge of the PCB (Printed Circuit Board) holder. This provides the necessary electrical contact and also holds the PCB in place. You can see this method used on the left image. Oh, and we are looking at the back of the flashlight head where the body threads in. The little spring contacts the (+) top of the battery.
Prototype solution (left) and final solution (right)
The soldering solution is "okay" but a bit unreliable from an assembly standpoint. The technical problem is that the copper conducts heat extremely well, making it hard to solder. The large copper mass rapidly pulls the heat out of the soldering iron, cooling it to a temperature too low for soldering. Another issue that you can see in the left photo is the tiny gap between the PCB and the copper rim. The solder does not want to cross gaps so you are forced to "blob" it on, using more than necessary. It also looks crude.