Solar Pocket Factory

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.

 

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 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.

Written by Alex Hornstein — April 24, 2013

Solar fools

April Fools' day marks the anniversary of the Solar Pocket Factory, and this week feels like a victory lap.  We finished packing all 1,230 kits, and we're sending them to Seeed studios, our shipping partner in Shenzhen this coming week (shipping surveys coming tonight).  We expect to be shipping to backers by mid-april.  We've got our new Solar Pocket Factory building working panels like boomsticks, and it's fricking awesome to have a machine capable of making hundreds of thousands of solar watts a year that we can pack into our checked airplane baggage.  We had us a cleantech passover seder in Hong Kong, complete with thermoelectric lights running off the shabbat candles and solar quippas with USB outputs.  We just ran a booth this weekend at Shenzhen Maker Faire where people made their own panels on the spot, and it was insanely fun.  Shawn made a solar-powered flipbook.  We've bought our tickets out to San Mateo Maker Faire in May, which will be the first public appearance of the Solar Pocket Factory(come by and say hello!).  All in all, it feels like we've dreamt a little bit of the future, and it's coming true.  Not bad for a year's hacking.

One other thing happened this week:  we figured out how to make the pocket factories cheap.  Shawn and I were experimenting with different techniques for laminating and waterproofing a solar panel, and we came up with a very simple method of building a pane that produces remarkably robust, waterproof panels using only plastic film and a $30 office laminator.  The simplicity of this technique means that we can make small panels that cost less per watt than large rooftop panels, on a machine that costs a couple thousand dollars, rather than millions of dollars.  We love that we're able to get into the guts of solar panels and dream up new ways to use solar in our lives, and now we're very excited about the possibility of creating simple, low-cost tools for cleantech hacking.  We've been at this for a year, now, and we're just getting warmed up.  More to come, very soon!

In web news, we're pleased to announce that solarpocketfactory.com is now live, combining our Pocket Pages blog, a web store for kits, high-quality solar panels and other solar hacking goods.  We're looking forward to another awesome year of cleantech hacking.

Shine!
-A&S


Oh, yeah.  One last thing.  We also made a solar-powered button that orders you pizza when you press it.  We've been eating buttonfood all week.   mmmm mmmm good!

Written by Alex Hornstein — April 07, 2013

Continuing a Kickstarter Tradition

 A couple weeks ago, I posted about our efforts to cut all 100,000 solettes for the kits.  It took an astounding amount of work to get all this done. 

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12KW of solar cells in an airport taxi

All in all, there were a dozen people involved in the chain of events that moved the solettes from Taiwan to Shenzhen to Hong Kong to Manila, scored, tested and packed the solettes in Manila, and then shipped them back up to Shenzhen to be packed in the kits.  The people we worked with came from all kinds of backgrounds, spoke all kinds of languages, and had all kinds of skills.  On an invention adventure, you meet all kinds of people.  And the last person we worked with on the solettes was an entrepreneur.

Trouble was, we didn't think we were dealing with an entrepreneur.  We thought we were dealing with a shipping company.

On February 15, I gave our laboriously prepared solettes to a shipping company in Manila to ship up to Shenzhen the following day, but it appears that our shippers saw a better opportunity:  rather than deliver the solettes, they could not deliver the solettes and keep the $400 deposit.  

This was frustrating for many reasons, the main one being that solettes by themselves are valueless.  The market for chopped-up solar cells isn't exactly booming these days, and there's no one else in the Philippines building microsolar cells.  The "accept $400 to ship $5,000 of solettes, discard the solettes and keep the cash" plan didn't seem like a good business to me, but then again, they got our solettes.  Who am I to argue?

Bizarrely, the crooked shippers stayed in contact with us for three weeks, and once it became clear that the solettes were not, in fact, on the way to China, we tried everything we could think of to get them back, even offering ransom.  Being conned sucks.  Losing weeks and weeks of work sucks more.  Last Friday, our entrepreneurial shippers de-activated their phone numbers, stopped answering their emails and evaporated*.  The solettes were gone.

 

I guess that's why it's an invention *adventure*, not the invention walk in the park.

 

This was a hitch in our plans.  Here's what we're going to do about it:

Of course we'll still ship your kits.  Hai-ya!  It takes more than a puny solette heist to derail the mighty train that is the pocket factory.  We're going to cover the cost of re-making the lost solettes, and we've been working since Friday with a supplier in China to get a final timeline for scoring and packing the solettes.  We don't have a firm delivery date yet for the new solettes, but once we get this hammered out with our vendor, we'll set a new ship date for the kits.  To minimize delays and complexity, we're getting these new solettes made in China, rather than making them ourselves in Manila.  We'll be posting updates as we work our way around this and get a final timeline.

Meanwhile, the rest of the parts and packaging for 1,230 kits have arrived in China and are ready for final assembly, once we get the solettes.  We can only run an address poll once on Kickstarter, and we're waiting until we have the solettes in production, and then we'll ask for everyone's latest shipping addresses for the kits.

Obviously, this wasn't part of the plan.  Thank you for being patient.  We are working hard to get your kits in your hands as quickly as possible.

 

To finish on an upbeat note, the parts for our latest Solar Pocket Factory are on their way to Hong Kong, and Shawn's team is assembling them this week.  Nikko and I are going up to Hong Kong next week to wire it up and make it sing.  This is the culmination of everything we've learned about microsolar manufacturing over the last year, and it's AWESOME.  This latest machine is very compact, and is capable of making hundreds of thousands of watts a year.  We're trying new ideas with this iteration, like storing solettes in cartridges for easy loading and unloading, smarter sensors to make sure that every part of the machine is working properly, and for the first time, integrating a test station into the production line, so we know that we're outputting working, tested panels.  

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We designed this machine with one other constraint:  it can break down and fit into checked airplane luggage, so we can take it anywhere in the world.  On May 18 and 19, we're bringing it to Maker Faire San Mateo as the first public debut of the Solar Pocket Factory.  If you're going to the Faire, come by and say hello!

And stay tuned for next week, as we get the latest machine up and running.  We'll be posting video, photos, and a more detailed look into what this Pocket Factory does and how it works.

  

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And to our solettes, may the sun ever shine upon you, and may you rest in peace

 

 

 ----

*  The entire story with the shippers is longer and weird as hell.  This will definitely be a chapter in the book.  

 

Written by alex — March 13, 2013

Solar Pocket Pages 2.18.13: Put your kit in that box

Hey Kickstarter.
I found a video that you might like. Check it out:

A month ago we got our first working panel off of our production machine. This is that machine.
 What you don't see in the video is the several hundred wrecked panels littering the floor. I worked with Shawn's team for four straight days, vamping and revamping the electronics, the programming, belt tension, setscrews, soldering temperatures and countless other knobs. Alvin fumigated the lab with scorched PCBs from his soldering mechanism. Angus found some pneumatic dampeners which made the difference between a shattered pile of solettes and a controlled, working panel. And Samtim and I waded neck-deep through a spaghetti mill of wires, packaging the electronics into a self-contained, neatly wired box, prominently featuring an emergency-stop button. 
That emergency stop button was the most useful thing I contributed to the pocket factory. An E-stop is a big red button, like the ones that launches warheads in movies, which you can smash with the palm of your hand, bringing the machine to a crashing halt before it bumps into something expensive. Before the E-stop button, we had a digital key labeled "stop" in the web page that controlled the factory. That was entirely useless. By the time someone realized that something was going wrong on the factory, moused over to the button and pressed it, the machine had crashed and burned, tearing itself into a pile of silicon shards and aluminum shavings.

So the Solar Pocket Factory works, and we're building one last major revision to fix the biggest issues that have been plaguing us. The biggest one was the conveyor--in the last version, we designed a long, complicated conveyor belt that would carry the solar panels from one station to another. However, slight variances in the thickness of the panel backings would cause the conveyor to slip and the panels to move unpredictably. To fix it, we switched to a much simpler system that we call "Bucket brigade", where each panel is butted against the next one, pushing it through the machine.

The other big change is the soldering. We have developed several different ways to solder solettes together, but they all have their idiosyncrasies. In the latest machine, we used hot air to melt the solder, and a spring-loaded pin to hold the metal tabbing against the molten solder, while a fan blows over, cooling the solder and forming a joint. This method works, but it has limited reliability, and when it goes wrong, 400C air can scorch the backings, generating clouds of noxious fumes. It leaves something to be desired. 
What we changed to is a soldering method called Inductive Soldering. Inductive soldering lets us heat up metals without touching them, by exposing them to a high-frequency magnetic field. This means that we're putting a minimum of mechanical stress on the delicate solettes, we don’t heat up anything that we don’t want to solder, and the process is highly repeatable and adjustable. We shipped samples of our solettes and tabbing to the inductive soldering company to test the solder, and the result were the nicest solder joints we've ever seen.

Completed Tests 2

It didn't come cheap--an inductive solderer is now the most expensive part of the system, but a working factory that produces perfect panel after panel is much better than a factory that works some of the time and constantly requires tinkering.   This machine has been a long time coming, but it's going to do us proud.  All the parts for this latest version come in on March 10, and I can't wait to see it come together.


In Kickstarter reward news, we're all a-flurry with activity. We finished scoring and breaking all 100,000 solettes for the kickstarter orders a week and a half ago. Look at them: aren't they lovely?

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Here's a little video of our laser scoring 30 of the standard solettes.  Only 71,470 to go!  

 

 

 

Back in January, we ordered all of our parts for the Kickstarter rewards, moving everything to Shenzhen where the parts would be assembled into finished kits and shipped around the world. Everything came in--solettes, batteries, thousands of tubes of superglue, 25,000 bobby pins. We stacked them up in the corner of an apartment, checking them off the list. By the third week of January, there was really only one unchecked item on the list: the packaging.
 We designed the packaging and printed manual with the help of a graphic designer, Lex, in Manila. Before we could order the packaging, we had to nail down the exact physical dimensions of everything, and that meant figuring out how much padding we needed for the delicate solettes. So we tried tests after tests. We shrink wrapped, bubble-wrapped, heat-sealed and rubber-banded. We made small packets of padded solettes and threw them at one another in Shawn's lab, unwrapping them afterwards to see if the solettes survived the trauma. We nixed a lot of ideas--we wanted to use a minimum of plastic in our kit. Finally, we settled on a method that we called the heat-sealed burrito: we'd wrap a stack of solettes in a roll of thin polyethylene foam, heat-seal the ends, and we'd be left with a neat little sealed package. The sealed foam held the solettes firmly in a stack, the solettes themselves providing reinforcing strength. The thin foam added a bit of padding, as well as two layers of cardboard padding within the kit. We got our final dimensions and sent out our packaging for samples before the Chinese New Year deadline. 

Oh, yeah. Chinese New Year. Those three words fill every product designer with dread. Starting on the first week in February, all of China went on break for a week. The weeks before and after get slammed with extra work, crammed to meet the deadlines. Basically, February is a dead month in China.
 Most factories will give you deadlines for your orders if you want your parts shipped before Chinese New Year. We worked out a schedule and sent out our packaging designs for samples a couple weeks before Chinese New Year.( It's always a good idea to get a sample part before ordering 1,200 of something.) Sure enough, there were some minor changes needed with the packaging--use thicker, sturdier cardboard here, adjust the color there, so we made a list of changes and sent the final order to the manufacturer, feeling quite smug that we'd planned for Chinese New Year.

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And then we heard back from the printer--"Hey, guys. Yeah, we gave you a deadline date, but we're just going to ignore it and take off early for the new year. If you still care, we can print it when we're back.  Kthxbye!" 


We ranted and roared, but there was no one at the other end of the telephone to hear our ravings. We looked around in Hong Kong for other vendors (oddly, no one does printed packaging in Hong Kong), even looking as far as Taiwan and Manila, but to no avail. We didn't like this, not one bit. It meant that we'd have to delay shipment to the middle of March, to make time for the cardboard printing.


So, that's the rub.  Everyone got back from Chinese New Year on Monday (except for our printer company, who's still MIA).  We're printing the manuals and packaging now, with a different printer, and we'll have it by the end of February.  In the first week of March, Shawn and Samtim will set up a little assembly line in Dongguan, and put all the parts for the 1,230 kits into boxes.  We get the packed kits to our shipping partner in Shenzhen, and all the kits will be in the mail by the third week in March.  


Well, Kickstarter, it's 3:00 am in Manila, and I'm going to bike home and catch some precious Zs.  


Until tomorrow,


Alex

Solar Pocket Pages 1.15.13: lasers on our minds

A package came in the mail last week. It was a long time coming, and I was pacing nervously around my lab in Manila, checking the time and worrying. Since the middle of November, two giant lasers have been in transit from a factory in China somewhere near Shanghai, making their peripatetic way across the ocean, through the ports, squeezing through Philippines customs and, today, lurching along the roads of Manila towards my lab. These lasers are important for the pocket factory: one of them lets us cut up silicon cells into custom-sized solettes--small pieces of silicon that we assemble into panels, and the other lets us cut and mark the backings for our solar panels.

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Both lasers are important, but the critical one is the scribing laser that cuts up solar cells--we have to cut 100,000 solettes to fulfill the kickstarter rewards, and we need this laser to cut them. There are scattered companies all over the world that make lasers like these, but if absolutely need a laser, you need it delivered ASAP and you need it to work right away, you need to go to the only place in the world where hundreds of other people are using and buying and selling these lasers: you need to go to China. So we asked around and went to a trade faire or two, and we came across a company, The Heavenly Light Laser Company, who everyone seemed to love. We'd seen their machines in the solar factories we visited, and other laser manufacturers spoke well of them. Our contact at this company was a friendly, intense salesman who went by "James" as his English name*. James was astoundingly responsive--he was always on skype, chatting with us about his lasers, sending us specifications we asked for and shooting back answers seconds after we asked him a question. People recommended his company, we liked how much attention he gave us, and we liked the price, which was pretty damn good in the laser world. He said he'd shipped lasers into Manila before, and it was no problem to get them into the country. Sure, he knew how to get them to us. The lasers could ship out a week after they received payment, so if we were good, we'd get them around November 1, giving us plenty of time to figure out production for the kickstarter rewards and how to make solettes for the pocket factory. So we got an official quote, and one morning I sent an email to my banker, asking her to send $15,600 to a bank account in China. Suddenly, James went away. Uh-oh. I sent emails, I called, asking for him to confirm that he got the money, and for three gut-wrenching days, I didn't hear anything other than a few mumbles. Every story I'd ever read of Westerners getting robbed blind in China started playing in my head, all at once, and I felt consumed by the useless indignance that comes with being a sucker. And then, finally, James wrote back. "Oh, it's been busy. How have you been?" "I'm fine," I responded through clenched teeth. "When can you ship out the lasers?" "I am very sorry, Alex, but I cannot say at the moment." After a frustrating month of vague promises, the lasers got on a boat. They arrived in Manila three days before I was planning to fly to the states for Thanksgiving and were promptly squirreled away by customs, who informed me that I needed an import license to get them into the country. I'd never heard of an import license before. James vanished once again, and I spent much of Thanksgiving break lying awake at one in the morning on my grandparents' sofa, chatting in Tagalog with customs brokers and pleading to anyone who'd listen to help us bring these lasers into Manila. It turns out that, when a large international shipment arrives in a country, it starts a one-month clock. If you can't figure out how to bring your stuff into the country within that month, it gets impounded by customs, and you have to pay insane amounts of money if you ever want to get your stuff. During that month, I learned more about shipping things into the Philippines than I ever cared to know. I called every customs broker, freight forwarder and importer I could find, but the answer was always the same--the papers on our shipment were hopelessly out of whack. "What papers?" I screamed. "The ones the vendor provided" James had told us that he could get the lasers delivered to my lab in Manila, and like idiots, we believed him. Maybe he was lying to make the sale, or maybe it was an honest mistake and something important was lost in translation. I thought about this as I burned little effigies of the man in my backyard. He'd basically slapped my name on the shipment, sent it towards manila, and washed his hands of the whole situation. This story didn't become clear for some time--it came out in bits and pieces, through phone calls with customs, our shipper, and various importers, all of whom informed us of another way in which we were totally screwed. And all the while, the one-month clock was ticking.

We began to despair. We started talking about putting the lasers back on a boat and shipping them to another port in the Philippines, so we could try again. We thought about bailing and shipping them up to Shawn's lab in Hong Kong, which has much simpler import regulations. I called in favors with importers I'd met in bars six months ago. Throughout this time, James would periodically pop up on Skype. "Hello, Alex" he would say brightly, "Have you brought in the lasers, yet?" "No," I'd say, "We're still working on it" "Please hurry! If you delay too long, the lasers will be impounded" he'd write back, and then sign off.

With ten days left on the doomsday clock, I got a call from James on night. "Alex, alex. I previously sold laser machines to another client in Manila. Maybe he could help you" A few minutes later, I was on the phone with a very competent man who made a living in importing lasers into the Philippines. Yes, he could help us. Here's what needed to happen.... He walked me through the process and told me a price so exorbitant I simply screamed. By then, it was December 10, and I was set to fly to the States on December 20. Shawn and I took all of one second to decide, and nine days later, at the last possible minute, somebody picked up our lasers from customs, put them on a truck, and brought them into the country. Of course, by then it was the night before I was set to leave for the US, and Manila's snarled Christmas traffic made it impossible to drive the ten miles from the port to my lab, so the lasers chilled out in a warehouse while I was in the states, and the day I got back, they sent them to my lab. By then, it was three months since we decided to buy the lasers. I'd completely forgotten that we'd get something in exchange for our money--I thought we just paid a lot of money for the pleasure of panicking and dealing with uncommunicative salesmen. Words cannot describe the relief that flooded through me when the lasers finally landed in my lab.

Of course, it wouldn't be that easy. The lasers were in pieces, and conveniently, I discovered, there was no manual. I had to call James. We had a drop-dead date a week later when we had to know that our laser was working and capable of cutting solettes, to give us enough time to order our silicon cells and cut them up for the Kickstarter rewards. I spent about twenty hours on Skype with James that week, holding a laptop while he said, "Alex, now show me the back of the machine. Now show me the front. Now the back. No--the other back" and directing me to make various connections.

After a lot of doing, we got the laser wired in, hooked up to the water chiller for the laser tube, and generally set up. The final step was to try to cut a silicon cell.

The laser turned on, beaming a bright point of laser light onto the cell, but it was too weak to score the cell properly. I consulted with James, and we upped the laser power, but it still wasn't cutting properly. Finally, he told me, "Alex, you must focus the beam" "Ok, how do I do that?" "yes" "No--how do I focus the beam" "Yes, you must focus it" "OK, I get that, but how do I do it?" "Alex...you must"

I must. There was a small knob that adjusted the lens' distance from the workpiece, and I started turning it back and forth, gauging the brightness and intensity of the laser's cut. Finally, I hit on the right spot, told the laser to score a cell, and felt the satisfying *snap* of the cell breaking cleanly in my hands.

"You see?" said James from my laptop, "everything is OK"

I shut my laptop, and for the first time in a while, I smiled.

---

 

p.s. If you ever how people move 1,500 pounds of lasers in Manila, check this out:

* It's common in Asia for people to choose English names that are easier for Westerners to remember and pronounce. People have all kinds of reasons for choosing a name, but in general, the process is similar to choosing a tribal name in Indian Guides. Some people make jokes with their names, some people choose names that sound similar to their true name, but most people just pick something that sounds cool.

When I was apartment hunting in Manila, I ran into the coolest English names of all time--there was a small piece of paper taped to a tree saying, "apartment for rent. Contact Zylene [sic], Xerox or Jazz"

Written by alex — February 01, 2013

Solar Pocket Sushi & Arduinos that Feast on the Sun

Hello backers, fans, and industry spies!

The Solar Pocket Factory team in Hong Kong and Manila has been working 'round the clock after deciding to slash three months from our development schedule.  This is looking like a good move since it forced us to give up on some more ambitious but nebulous experiments and instead to get a full machine integrated and running. The moonshot experiments will still come, but only after we prove some fundamentals. The prototype machine we were initially aiming to have done in April 2013 will instead be done in a week.  Zing!

Hardware is complete and the brains of the machine are going to get connected on Monday. Controls will be entirely web-based from the start on this revision.  This is a big step for us and the project -- this means we are leaving the doodling stage of invention and entering a phase where we can plan out 90% of the details before turning the machine on.  Explosions will still occur, but they will be less frequent and larger.

A big part of the Solar Pocket Factory adventure has been experimenting with distributed invention via two geographically separated labs, with builds happening simultaneously in Hong Kong and Manila.  It is absolutely insane and absolutely fascinating.  More on that in our next post.

But for now, the real reason for this update.  We made the machine convey sushi.  Oh yes.  Yes we did.  The chance to convey sushi does not come up often enough in life, I reckon.

And by gosh, if that wasn't enough....the Solar Pocket Arduino Shield parts have all arrived!  We will be doing final assembly in January, but below are some photos of the boards and parts for 150 units.  It's almost like we know what we're doing!

(We absolutely do not know what we are doing.  Don't let this update fool you into thinking all is going smoothly.  That wouldn't be terribly adventuresome.  Rest assured, huge lasers have been lost.  And found. Probably.  Alex nearly lost an eye.  Our first real orders for panels with intelligent backings are coming in.  I agreed to appear on a children's educational television program in Taipei following the Photovoltaic Fair (and I don't speak Mandarin). And surely, surely something very big is going to go wrong very soon.  But for now...enjoy the calm sounds of sushi advancing one step at a time and think of the solar pocket future right around the corner.

-Shawn and Alex and the Solar Pocket Factory team

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And by gosh, if that wasn't enough....the Solar Pocket Arduino Shield parts have all arrived! We will be doing final assembly in January, but below are some photos of the boards and parts for 150 units. It's almost like we know what we're doing!

(We absolutely do not know what we are doing. Don't let this update fool you into thinking all is going smoothly. That wouldn't be terribly adventuresome. Rest assured, huge lasers have been lost. And found. Probably. Alex nearly lost an eye. Our first real orders for panels with intelligent backings are coming in. I agreed to appear on a children's educational television program in Taipei following the Photovoltaic Fair (and I don't speak Mandarin). And surely, surely something very big is going to go wrong very soon. But for now...enjoy the calm sounds of sushi advancing one step at a time and think of the solar pocket future right around the corner.

-Shawn and Alex and the Solar Pocket Factory team

Written by alex — December 22, 2012

Solar Pocket Pages 12.11.12 Lost Boys on Old Gold Mountain

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Five hours left in the US and I'm writing from a little taqueria looking out on 16th and Weise, the Tapatío guy staring out at me from the salsa bottles on the table (a surefire sign that you're west of the continental divide).  I can find just about any kind of food I want back in Manila, but Mexican, my favorite food in the world, never quite translates right.  So I'm stocking up on some burritos mojados y pico de gallo before going back to my usual Manila diet of lentils, water buffalo cheese and banana flowers stewed in coconut milk.

 

I haven't been back to the States in about nine months, and I didn't plan to stay this long.  It just so happened that three weeks ago I was sitting in the Manila airport, about to come home for family Thanksgiving in New York, when an email popped up in my inbox from this group called Y Combinator.  Come out to San Francisco, it said.  We want to interview you.

 

Of course I know Y Combinator.  Every nerd does.  They're arguably the best incubator for budding smart-ups in silicon valley.  Startups apply from all over the world and, if they accept you, they bring you out to Silicon Valley, give you enough money to stay alive and work like dogs for three months in San Francisco, give you extremely effective coaching and hook you up with anyone in the Valley you could ever care to meet.  On top of all that, there is a fancy-schmancy investment fund headed by an early Facebook investor started placing decent-sized investments in every company accepted into Y Combinator.

 

A month ago, Shawn and I were sitting around in Hong Kong, worrying about money and the future when we looked up Y Combinator and found that the applications were due in a week.  We leapt up, ran around like crazed weasels for a few minutes, filmed an intro video and I went back to Manila and spent an agonizing week writing the rest of our application.  For anyone who is interested, you can check out our application here.

 

Now, there's a funny thing about Y Combinator.  They have got an impressive track record, but pretty much everything they do is software, on rare occasions served with a light dash of hardware.  We are the opposite.  We build tiny factories that connect to the web.  So we felt a little self-conscious writing our application, tempered slightly by an essay the Y Combinator head honcho wrote, encouraging more hardware startups to apply.  What the hell, we figured--what's the worst that could happen?

 

That being said, we never expected them to like us.  So when we got a letter saying that we made the first cut and should come in for an interview, we freaked out, ran around like crazed weasels for a while, then spent an ungodly sum on plane tickets to San Francisco and started wondering what the hell we were going to say to these guys.

 

The three weeks in between hearing back from Y Combinator and our interview were thrilling and worrisome.  We Skyped.  We called.  We wrote endlessly on strategy.  We worried about how to present our hardware startup to software people.  We tried different ideas and hated them.  I lay awake in bed, gripped with early morning jetlag, twitching uncontrollably at the exciting and terrifying future where I'd move from Manila to Silicon Valley for three months to work on the Solar Pocket Factory there.  It wasn't the money and it wasn't the plans that excited us.  It was this irresistible call of being judged and deemed worthy.  The possibility of having a capable group take a long, hard look at what we're doing and say, "sure, we'd love to work with you!" Looking back through my old diaries, I found:

 

The big thing I'm feeling about YC is the validation it brings.  It's the same kind of feeling we got from Kickstarter, where we present our ideas and let people judge for themselves whether they think we're worth supporting.  YC is like this big flashing sign that says "we're smart, we're experienced, we're for real, and we think you might be for real, too.  Call me maybe"

That kind of validation draws me in like a moth to a flame.  I don't want it to have this much power over me.  But it does.  Both Shawn and I feel this siren song, and we struggle to keep our righteous independent vision amidst this irresistible draw.

But we want something like this--some experienced partner or mentor who'll be on our side, and who can help us think through the giant field of unknown crapola that we're diving into headfirst.  Having anyone sign up to be on our team is a kind of validation, and we should feel validated if someone likes and trusts us enough to want to cast their lot in with ours, whether their lot is $5 in kickstarter backing or signing up to work full-time on our team or spending 5 hours/week kicking ideas around with us or investing in us.  We're horny for validation.

And what's weird is that horniness is very separate from the horniness for our smartup's success.  Thinking about a world of distributed solar manufacturing is like thinking about having a baby two years from now.  It's warm and fuzzy and interesting and abstract as hell.  Thinking about getting someone to work with us is like thinking about having sex, tonight.    That's infinitely more concrete and appealing and tangible and addictive.

 

So a couple weeks later I left a warm Boston bed for a freezing Boston taxi, and ten hours later I'm lugging a couple duffels and a 3D printer down a street in Mountain View when I hear a familiar voice shout, "Alex Hornstein!"  I look up and there's Shawn sitting in a coffee shop window, fresh in from Hong Kong and looking like he'd been here his whole life.  We've got 24 hours before our interview. We ditch our bags in a friend's house and spend hours walking through Mountain View and practicing for this ten minute interview.  At best, we'll get two uninterrupted minutes to explain ourselves before they start leading the interview with their questions.  So we practice and we practice, and then we start pretending like we're Y Combinator staff and interrupt each other with questions.  We nitpick.  We misunderstand.  We tear weaknesses apart.  We do our best to attack any vulnerability in each others' explanation of what we're doing.  Mountain View is not a very big town, and we must have circled around dozens of times in the 48 hours we spent there.  After a while, it's nighttime, we've run through every possible permutation, and there's nothing left to do but head for cheap pho and Vietnamese beer with some friends on Castro st.

The next morning we chew things over for a bit, then raid our hosts' fridge for breakfast and walk on over to the Y Combinator offices.  We're feeling steady.  Y Combinator itself is filled with the air of ambition and terror, countless unknown startups pinning their future ambitions on a ten-minute interview.  We spent half an hour mocking stupid, imaginary startups that end in .ly, (including mock.ly, the startup that mocks other startups), and then they call us in.

 

There are four of them on the other side of the table.  We get maybe two minutes into our spiel, and then the questions start flying through the air like AAA fire.  I would have been more jostled, if it wasn't for this underlying thought pervading my emotions, whoah, these guys are smart.  And they are.  Usually, when we talk to investor-types, we have to stretch and wrestle to explain what we're doing and why it's worthwhile.  The YC guys are different--they get us from the get-go.  They've done their homework, they've read up on us, and they want to go deeper, beyond everything we've written publicly.  And the next ten minutes are a fascinating discussion, one of the best discussions I've had with anyone except Shawn about the underlying purpose of the Solar Pocket Factory.  We go well beyond our alotted ten minutes, and it's engaging and fascinating and I'm actually disappointed when the secretary comes in and says that they absolutely have to move on to the next group.

 

They say they'll call us back that night if we're in, so we go into the city and hit up some cheap Mission bars with friends, killing time until we hear.  San Francisco is wonderful, and for a moment, I find myself carried away on the fantasy.  We walk past Clarion, the graffiti alley, and I stare transfixed at the slogan painted neatly across a garage door,

 

Hay respeto en nuestra rebeldia y hay lucha en nuestro corazón.

There's respect in our rebellion and there's fight in our hearts

 

There is no phone call.

 

A couple hours later, we're getting antsy, and Shawn shoves his fancy smart phone at me so I can check my email.  I pop it up, and there it is, a quick, concise note from Y Combinator explaining that they're not going to fund us.  There's a short paragraph with some explanation, and we read it over again and again.  It's not that they didn't get us.  They got us just fine.  They just didn't agree with us.

Well shit.  At least we got an investor to understand what the hell we're up to.  We're not feeling too chipper, but we come across a broken watermelon lying on the street, and we stomp it to pieces and feel a little better.  After another bar and some Aladdin karaoke, we're buoyed back with to usual insane optimism.

 

We're a startup that fights outsourcing and globalization, and yet we always have to face the problem of globally outsourcing our validation.  We need other people to care about what we're doing.  If nobody cares; if we don't affect anybody, then we're irrelevant.  Every time someone writes us to say “I believe in what you're doing, I think this is important, I like where you're coming from”--it gives us support that soars far beyond anything money can offer.  It gives us confidence that what we're doing is going to make a change, that the story we tell ourselves is, in fact, backed up by the World.  And it stings to go to someone for validation and get turned down.  But every time someone writes us to say that they've got a great idea for something to do with our panels or our pocket factories--that's huge.  And when a stranger who's been following us online pops up and hugs us out of the blue, saying they love what we're doing--well, it doesn't get any better than that.

 

So Shawn and I jawed it over a million ways from Sunday, pointing out the silver lining to each other, always looking for something silver-er.  But the best perspective came from my friend Christy as she dropped me off at the Bart station earlier today.  On the car ride over, I gave her the whole story, dressed up in self-deprecation and wry humor, and she just smiled and said, well, you boys are just too weird for Silicon Valley.  Might as well go back home.

 

I smile, remembering her words, and I touch the plane tickets in my jacket pocket.  I haven't touched an allen key in weeks and I'm starting to get antsy.  Outside, buskers holler old Dylan songs.  Zoom out to show a labyrinth of money and value and IP addresses that I may never understand.  Giants fans set fire to mattresses in intersections, practicing for the next World Series.  It's been fun, San Francisco.  Let's get back to work.

 

 

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photo credits

thegirlskeepcomingtothecanyon.tumblr.com

bochum1.de/

 

Written by alex — December 10, 2012

Solar Pilgrim Pages 11.27.12

It's a freezing morning the day after Thanksgiving, and I'm pressed against a cold window on a cold train to Boston.  I haven't been to the States in almost a year and  I miss being cold.  I miss fall leaves and wonderful New England stone walls and bleak New England houses.  Cold sullen water is icy-still in the marshes and frost is steaming off the rooftops and frost is steaming off the rooftops and it's lovely here.

 

I got back four days ago, and like a hermit crab, I've been building up a little shell around myself.  A lifetime of building and projects means that I've got countless boxes of components and tools and books stashed in basements up and down the east coast.  I grabbed a jumbo duffel bag and have been stuffing it with things that are hard to come by in Manila.  3D printer filament and Leonard Cohen books and atmega64s and picture postcards and nontoxic polyurethane encapsulant and zigbee radios.

 

Just because I'm in the States doesn't mean life in Manila goes on hold.  I'm staying up till 2AM every night on calls with freight forwarders and customs brokers, advocating for two lasers that are sitting in a warehouse in Manila port, trying to get them delivered to my lab.  Oy vey!  When I get back, we'll go into mondo production mode and cut 88,000 solettes for the kits.  That will be fun.

 

Two hours before my flight from Manila, I finished moving into Mantis II, my new lab in Manila.  We moved into a converted shoe warehouse in Manila's lively Cubao X, tucked in among art galleries and bars and antique shops.  It's a far cry from the old boardinghouse that we called home for the last six months, and I'm miss drinking cheap rum with the neighborhood trike drivers at two in the morning and hearing roosters crow after pulling an all-nighter.  But I like the concrete floors and cement walls and the fact that we don't have to haul 1200 pounds of laser equipment up narrow staircases.  Moving was supposed to happen over a leisurely two-week period, but rotten loveless bastards conspired to compress it to a hellish three days of no sleep and hauling pocket factories in borrowed trucks across Manila at 4am.  Why am I telling you this?  Because I love my new lab and it's more fun to complain to an audience than to feel smug and accomplished.

 

I've learned a staggering amount about international shipping and customs in the last several weeks.  For small packages like the kits, it's not an issue.  Take it to the post office, pay the postage, drop it in the mail, and it gets there.  It's a different story to shlepp 150 pounds of fancy encapsulant from LA to Shenzhen.  Out of curiousity, I asked Fedex's shipping calculator how much it would cost to mail it like a normal Fedex package, and was somewhat dismayed to see that it cost more than my first car.

Fortunately, a few pages back in the phone book, there's a slew of freight companies that no one has ever heard of.  These are the guys.  They know how to ship a thousand pounds of machinery across borders and oceans.  They do it all the time, and they're good at it.  It's not as easy or straightforward as dropping something in the mail slot at the Fedex, so I spent a lot of time on the phone getting a crash course in packing goods onto pallets, arranging customs brokers and moving big things onto bigger boats and all these things sound terribly grown-up.

 

But that's enough about kits and labs and shipping.  I want to give an update on the big dream that is driving all of this: the Solar Pocket Factory.  In the last several months, Shawn and I learned something interesting about the way we both work:  we like to tackle ambitious, impossible projects, but we do our best work when we impose our own impossible deadlines.  When we pressure ourselves, we panic briefly, and then build faster, more cleverly, and more thoroughly than we would otherwise.  So we compressed a leisurely six months of development into six weeks, and set the goal to get the first production factory finished by middle of december.  And it worked.  Ladies and Gentlemen, I'd like you to meet the pilot Solar Pocket Factory:

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Design and shots by the illustrious Angus Fok

 

Isn't she lovely?  We're done with our master design, and we just got our first set of parts.  Just look at them!

 

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Next week, Shawn's lab will put it together in Hong Kong, discover that there are four or five problems we didn't anticipate, order some fixes, and by the end of next week he’ll send a big box down to Manila, where my lab will handle the firmware and controls.  We want production-quality panels coming off the line before we break for Christmas (I'd say the holidays, but I'll be working through Chanukkah and also I hate politically correct speech).  Stay tuned for an in-depth tour in the next update, but for now, enjoy the eye candy.

We've done a lot of thinking about the Pocket Factories over the last six months and we’ve found that the hardest questions are the biggest ones:  Who's going to use these things?  What are they going to make with them?  Where are all these people?

Well, we're going to operate the first Solar Pocket Factory in Manila,and start selling the panels, but in the long term we don't want to be in the solar panel-making business:  we want to make and sell the machines that let people make solar all over the world.  Yes,  we will probably always run our own machines to help us understand how they operate and how to streamline and simplify the process, but we think that as more people around the world have simple, fast access to solar,they will come up with all kinds of new neat ideas that use this solar in interesting ways.  We want to start getting these machines into other people's hands, ASAP, and it's that desire to distribute solar production around the world that shapes our plans and designs as we go.

 

In our original vision, we'd feed the machine with the rawest of materials, and it would make the same kind of microsolar panels as the ones you buy from China, not only cheaper but with automated and distributed production all over the world, rather than in centralized and globalized factories.  The more we experimented with this machine, the more we realized that it was going to be pricey.  To start with raw, whole solar cells, we would need an expensive laser built into each machine that could score the solar cells, plus an additional module that would break the solettes along the score lines.  That laser, in particular, was driving the price up.  The cheapest cell-scoring laser we could buy was $12,000 US, and it was big.  It weighed about a thousand pounds and took up about twenty square feet of floor space.  Plus, we'd have to build in our own materials-handling system to bring cells onto the laser for scoring, and to remove, test and stack the scored and broken solettes.  Starting from raw, whole solar cells did give some more flexibility in production, but it also made the machine far more expensive, unweildly, and complicated.  We wanted a better way.

We hit on this idea of cartridging solettes.  What if we separated the scoring laser from the Pocket Factory?  Instead of taking whole solar cells as a raw material, the Solar Pocket Factories would take a refillable cartridge of pre-cut solettes that are a certain size.  We'd operate a scoring laser in one of our labs, and we could score, cut and ship any size solettes that factory operators needed for their panels.  Operators wouldn't have to buy from us--the silicon could be sourced and scored from dozens of silicon fabs around the world, and anyone can load solettes into a cartridge, but in Southeast Asia, with access to the bulk of the world's silicon production, we could guarantee quick, custom cutting and shipping to anywhere in the world.

This decision does centralize the solette production, but the silicon was already the most centralized raw material.  And then there's the price:  this simple decision dropped our machine price by an order of magnitude.  Instead of making a machine that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, we could make a machine that costs tens of thousands of dollars.  And that's much closer to the vision of cheap, ubiquitous solar production.

We can make this machine, and we can make it simple, and we can get it out soon.  And that thought lights us up.  We don't want to spend years building up an expensive pocket factory and marketing it through trade fairs like every other big, dumb, expensive machine.  We want to make cheap machines that work well, and we want to be able to make and ship them now.  We want them to be capable--able to make better panels than what's out there now.  And we want them everywhere.

This here journey is a long and complex one, and it's important for us to keep a North Star in our sights as we go.  Some companies keep score with number of users, or money, or how many units they've sold.  We care about how many panels are made on our machines.  That tells us how much of an impact we're having, and how well our little idea of distributed solar production is doing at getting panels out into the world.  The more I think about this metric, the more I like it.  It means that we're not just trying to sell as many machines as we can--we also want to make sure the machines are making useful things, and that the machine operators can find people who want solar, and make that solar for them.  It also means that we should make panels that aren't just commodity panels that compete with the run-of-the-mill stuff coming out of traditional factories:  the machines are better and cheaper, and the panels should be, too.

So that's the plan:  make machines.  Make them work well, make them cheap enough that they can reach far and wide, and make them make good panels.  And then get them out into the world.  It may sound simple, but this idea was born on a cold, wet conversation on a motorcycle ride across the Philippines one year ago, and it took thousands and thousands of hours and prototypes and travel and Skype calls and thinking to distill it down to this simple statement.  As always, the hardest question is knowing why you're doing what you're doing.  Once you've got that, the rest might take time and effort, but at least the hard stuff is out of the way.

 

I've been having a dream, recently, of a view from a helicopter flying above Long Island, the week after hurricane Sandy.  It's nighttime and everything's dark, the power lines are down everywhere and roads are clogged with fallen trees.  It's one of those wide-angle shots and you can see miles and miles of neighborhoods with dark houses and people keeping warm inside.  And in my dream, there are a few neighborhoods with lights on, small pockets of light in the night.  And someone in these neighborhoods had a pocket factory in his garage and was able to crank out solar lights for her neighborhood, with a custom tweak to charge popular walkie-talkies.

 

The train is slowing, now, and I see familiar pretty houses and ugly highways.  The voice on the intercom squawks out, "Next stap, Bawhstuhn.  Enda the line."

God DAMN!!!  I love that dirty water.

 

Lit globe

Written by alex — November 27, 2012

Pocket Pages 11.12.12: Letter to a VC

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Photo credit:  flickr usr Pete Reed



A couple pages back, we posted a letter from a VC. Here's our response:

Dear Alex and Shawn,

I thought your new (ad)venture might benefit from the point of view of an investor.  You two clearly have the technical bases covered, but I'd like to offer a couple pieces of advice on how to proceed in the coming months to increase your operation's scalability

+1.  We're thinking about this a lot, these days.

 

and odds of receiving institutional investment.

Are there any ways to do this without taking institutional investment?  As you put forth, we're (a) doing hardware, which already makes us a long shot for venture money, and then there's (b) all the other nuttiness about us.  Even if we both got designer Ts and moved to San Francisco, I don't think we've got great odds with anyone except for an angel who's got a soft spot for solar, or for us, or (ideally) both.


You're right--we have to really struggle to compare with the scalability and speed of a software startup.  Microsolar is a pretty fast-moving industry, so that helps us, but we're still making hardware, which has some fundamental limits compared with software.  So rather than compete with VCs, who look at us and just wish we were pitching them a better way to post pictures to twitter, are there other sources of funding that have different expectations? (obviously I've got my own ideas, but I'd rather hear yours)

I want to see you succeed.

Thanks!  I want that, too.

First, a little bit about myself.  I've worked as a professional venture capitalist in Silicon Valley and Shanghai for nine years at [redacted].  I've led investment rounds in the mobile money space primarily, with a couple investments in early-stage social web startups.  Before this, I built a software as a service company in Boston from two people working from an apartment into a company with 220 employees, before we were acquired by Sisco.  I have my MBA from Wharton with and studied computer science as an undergrad, so I deeply understand the challenges you are facing as a new technology company from both a business and engineering background.

I agree--you've got incisive points, and it's clear that you're well versed in just about everything about how a startup runs.  So please read my response knowing that I respect your knowledge and experience, even though, as you'll see, I disagree with you a good deal.

I have a personal interest in cleantech, having lived in Shanghai I've seen the need for clean sources of energy, so after reading about your solarpocketfactory.com venture, I did some digging.  The first challenge you will face in raising money from a VC is that there is very little data on small solar panels : I could find no industry reports on even the number of these panels that get sold each year.  What is your addressable market?  I have a friend at McKinsey who is an expert in the energy field, and she had never heard of a scalable business in microsolar either.  This is the first challenge, you are alone in a market no one has ever heard of, other than perhaps obscure factories in the Pearl River Delta region of China PRC.  Red flag.

That's true.  In fact, I've written a couple editors of major PV trade journals to ask if they've ever heard anything about microsolar, and they say no, as well.  I mean, it makes sense.  Compared to the 30GW/year production of big solar panels, 300MW/year of microsolar panels is a drop in the bucket.  To anyone doing big-money financing, ops or R&D in the PV industry, the action is in big panels.  As independents, we didn't really have the money to play with those guys.  Plus, we stumbled into this insight with microsolar that seemed interesting.

Second concern: Distribution.  How will people get 1) your micro factories and 2) your micro panels?  Have you partnered with Home Depot or the Apple Store to distribute your panels?  Are you basing your business around brick-and-mortar sales or is it all web-based?  This is not clear from your site.  All the startups in my portfolio grow their user base at a rate of 5-7% per week, yes per week, and you will have trouble finding funding unless you find a way to grow revenue or eyeballs at a similar rate.

This is my favorite point you've raised in the email, because it hits right in the middle of the biggest problem that we've been thinking about.


Lemme do panels, first.  Virtually all of the B2C microsolar sales I've seen are web-based, either from fringe/niche sites like ebay stores or solar/electronics hobbyist sites like Sparkfun and Adafruit, or on sleazy commodity solar sales sites like (http://www.mrsolar.com/page/MSOS/CTGY/wattsort and http://www.ecodirect.com/Small-Solar-Panels-s/741.htm)


I could believe that there's maybe twenty-five megawatts/year sold in B2C solar panels.  But the bulk of the business is in B2B sales. (sorry about the fancy acronyms.  I've been making spreadsheets for the last couple days and I'm infected with the disease)  All microsolar is a component that's then built into a larger product.  A panel by itself does nothing unless it's connected to another component (a circuit, a battery, a hamster electroshock device, etc)  Most of the time, the guys who connect it to other components are manufacturers who source the solar as a component.  I'm talking about the solar garden lights, the bread and butter of the microsolar industry, that ships about 100MW/year of microsolar panels.  Or solar phone chargers, which probably make up about 50-75MW/year of production.


It doesn't make sense to touch brick and mortar distributors for microsolar.  All the action is in B2B sales.  And that's where we should be, too.  We've been on the '2B' side of that equation a number of times, and we have a good sense of what it's like, and we see a couple opportunities to fit in there.  The first bit:  it's a giant pain in the ass to order solar panels, especially as a small-to-midsize company that's ordering 100KW or less.  It takes about three weeks of back-and-forthing with a manufacturer just to settle on a solar panel design, pricing and delivery date, and another month to get the panels.  That's a longer leadtime than most plastics and electronics manufacturers, which means that pain turns into money via the company's burn rate.  Speeding up the ordering process can create value.  That's why we built stuff like http://www.solarpocketfactory.com/interface/.  This is a quick solar panel designer interface that lets users adjust the ~6 important parameters for a solar panel, speeding up the process of speccing out a panel with a factory and shaving about 1 week off the sourcing.  Instant quoting also saves a day or two of emails for both the factory and the supplier.  For the factory, software like this could automatically generate CAD drawings and manufacturing files for a panel, speeding their response time up by a couple days and saving a day or two of the engineer's time, who would normally draw up those plans.  In our case, the software feeds directly into our machines, giving us extremely good responsiveness and lowering the six week lead time to within 24 hours (with an optional expedite).  But even without a machine, it's possible to create value.  I could see us hosting sales sites for different factories, speeding up the sales process for a monthly fee or a percentage of revenue.


I know what you're going to say.  Now that sounds like a business.  Maximum software, minimum hardware.  It's scalability city.  Fuck that.  Yes, I concede it's a business, and it could be a better fit for a venture capitalist, but it's boring. It's boring because it doesn't create any value--the panels aren't any better.  The market for panels would remain exactly the same, whether or not the startup is a wild success.  It just siphons out money that normally goes to salespeople and sourcing/ops guys and pulls it into the startup.  There's zero net effect on the value of solar.  To do that, you have to touch hardware.


I'm going to put forth one big axiom:
++ The dominant cost in microsolar, especially in small panels (such as the 100MW of solar garden light panels), is labor.  Not silicon.  Not materials.  Labor.


Labor determines the lead time (it takes time for a salesman to close a deal, and to train up the line workers to make a new panel), the production cost (line workers have to score, break, place and connect every single piece of silicon, which is an extremely time-intensive process), the minimum order quantities (it costs a certain amount to pay the salespeople and engineers that find, quote, design and close a deal.  That time is mostly invariant for all orders.  The order has to be big enough to be worth the fixed cost).


The Solar Pocket Factory automates the sales, setup and production of panels.  One of our machines can produce 150kw/year using 1/6 of the production labor.  Sales and quoting could be done through a web interface, vastly reducing the salesman time.  And setup is all done in software and using a system of cartridging the raw materials (like in an inkjet printer), and requires about five minutes of human time to set up a job.


As a result, we drop the Cost of Goods Sold of a microsolar panel by about 40% (it's higher for smaller wattages and lower for big ones.  I'm quoting a 1W panel).  And we slash the sales overhead, including the 10-20% of revenue that salesman takes as commission.  We're talking about dropping the cost of microsolar by ~50%.  That's not a startup, it's a revolution!  We wouldn't be anywhere near as valuable if we focused on software.


Third big concern:  You are working on a. Cleantech, specifically with b. hardware and a touch of software instead of the other way around,

yeah, but we're driven by (a) and we like machine shops.  We're better at hardware than software.

and you are doing this inexplicably from c. Hong Kong and Manila it seems and d. in reading more about your operations you aren't only working on one venture, but on a whole portfolio of technologies, as if you are trying to make an invention factory rather than a focused startup.  Good fucking lord.  If there was a recipe for how to make your company uninvestable, you boys have it.

This is true.  I hope you don't mind that I'm putting those last two sentences on a T-shirt.
flippancy aside--yeah, I agree that this is really weird.  But as I mention below, is this really the limiting factor, or are we already sunk with (Cleantech and hardware).  If we're already fucked with the bits we're not going to change, why change our ambitions and the way we're living to accommodate a hypothetical VC who's not going to like us, anyway.

Or to put it another way, these are four strikes you'll need to contend with.

Also true.  And in all honesty, we're pretty clueless about how to dress ourselves up/take steps that make us look like a better bet to VCs.


Let's pretend that we tabled all notions of an invention factory and bought ourselves some graphic Ts and moved into an expensive apartment in the Mission like every other sensible startup founder.  We're not going to give up (a), because that's what we're excited about working on, and we think we're really onto something with this "build hardware to make solar cheaper" concept, although we're willing to adjust the business model if it made sense.  What's the best way to make ourselves palatable to investors?  Assuming you were interested in an energy company, what kind of scale/investment/risk would you want to see?  Are there any energy companies that you would have invested in?

 

Remember, you are competing with companies like Instaprint that get acquired for a billion dollars after a couple years.  That is what investors like myself are looking for.  Companies that change the world and scale.

Touché

Solar energy darlings like Konarka are crashing and burning, and this makes it a challenging environment for your new venture, since you are in solar.  Have you considered pivoting and focusing on energy as a service?

Fuck that.  I might consider solar production as a service, and doing a good job tying in a machine to supply chain or sales software, as kind of the Shapeways of solar.  But that ditches the entire disruptive element that we've been working on for seven months.  And "solar is hard because konarka failed" is not an argument


Plus, Konarka didn't fail because of underlying market economics.  They failed because they picked a really uncertain type of thin-film solar to monkey with, and after a ton of work and money, it was vastly inferior to CIGS thin-film and plain old silicon solar, and they had no sales to take advantage of the benefits they could offer.  I don't think the failure of a company doing research into new types of solar panels is indicitive about the success or failure of a company improving the production and sales processes of an existing type of solar panel.

I hope that helps.

It's awesome!  Thanks!

--alex

-Marvin P. [redacted]

Written by alex — November 11, 2012

Pocket Pages 11.2.12: The Crystal Ball, Pt 1

Shawn! We're geniuses!

We're well into hour two of our skype call. The topic: what we're going to do after our first pocket factory is working. These are our strategy sessions, and we spend endless amounts of time debating different strategies and ideas. Some weeks we talk for four or five hours a day. Some weeks we're too busy to do anything else but build solar machines in our respective labs. If we just wanted to make a Solar Pocket Factory, it would be easy. It's one thing I'm not worried about. Oh, it'll be hard, but there's no question in my mind that we can build that machine. But we want to see cheap, clean energy used all over the world. From our vantage points in our small, cluttered workshops, we have to squint far into the distance to see a world where our marchines making 100 megawatts of microsolar panels each year, three years from now. But that's the future we want to move towards. So we build models, we debate philosophy, we talk through scenarios. Glancing back through the numbers on my computer, a sudden sinking revelation emerges from the screen.

Shawn! We're fucked!

So it goes. It's all part of the invention adventure. But let's take a closer look at the playbill. We think about this a lot, and it's the crux of a decision that's fast approaching. The big question is, what do we want the Solar Pocket Factories to do, a year from now. Who's going to run them? Who's going to buy the solar that they make? Where are they going to be? How much will they cost? What will we do? Etc., etc.

The problem is that nobody, ever, has bothered to put together any information on how microsolar is sold and how used. Everything we learn about microsolar we just heard by word-of-mouth from product designers, manufacturers and suppliers in the business. We have rough numbers, and we're learning more constantly, but there's a lot of uncertainty. If we're going to make good decisions with the Solar Pocket Factory, we need to get some real numbers of our own. So we did what any good scientist would do: we set up an experiment.

At this point, we really understand nothing about the world of microsolar usage. Before we can make hypotheses and test them out, we need to do some observation. We figure that the best way to do that is to try and sell some panels and see what happens. So we scraped together some money and bought $1,000 of microsolar panels from a manufacturer we know and trust, and we set up a web store. I'm working with Skip, a friend in Manila, to help figure out how to handle all things store-related, from advertising to shipping these panels to analyzing our visitors and sales. Selling these panels helps us learn (a) who's ordering panels, (b) how many they're ordering, and (c) what they're using them for. Of course, we don't want to re-sell panels forever: the whole point of the Solar Pocket Factory is to make and sell panels in a new way, but we're still about five months away from making shippable panels with the Solar Pocket Factory, and re-selling existing panels lets us learn about microsolar, now.

Also, by starting to sell existing panels now, the idea is to get regular customers who know we sell good panels, and who repeatedly order from us. Once the Solar Pocket Factory is ready, we can expand our product line with our new, flexible production, and start producing our own panels on demand, rather than buying them from another factory.

We just put together our first order of 285 panels of assorted sizes, from 0.5W to 10W. And this brought along a distressing problem: how the hell are we going to deal with boxing and shipping 285 panels? And this is our first run--if we're any good, we'll be ordering a thousand panels at a time six months from now. It's already taking all of our time to design and build the Solar Pocket Factory, and we love doing that. The thought of trying to expand our tiny labs into logistics hubs makes our blood run cold. Plus, the idea of manually packing and shipping panels feels very counter to the hyper-automated idea behind the pocket factory. So we started looking around for shipping systems that were better than "pile the inventory under the bed and write the address on the box in sharpie when you get a sales email from the website" approach.

So Skip, Shawn and I spent a couple days clicking around online and calling people, and we found out that most warehouses won't talk to us. The only ones that will touch us, in fact, are Amazon's Web Fulfillment service and Shipwire. Shipwire is friendlier to international shipping and less of a pain to set up, so we decided to go with them. It's kind of amazing: we send these guys a box of solar panels, and link our web store to their inventory system. When someone buys a panel from us online, Shipwire automatically gets a message with the type and quantity of panels that they need to ship. They pick all our panels out of bins in their warehouse, put them in a box and send them to the customer. Money bounces all around the internet, automatically paying the warehouse and shipping companies. We see it all play out on a fancy internet dashboard. I've never felt more American.

I learned something terrifying when I was looking into shipping panels internationally: the Obama administration recently enacted a 250% tax on importing Chinese-origin panels into America, as part of a silicont trade war with China. This is something of a problem: our warehouse is in Los Angeles, and we have to get our panels through customs. This threw us for a loop for about a week, as I frantically called around to importers and exporters and customs bureaus, trying to figure out if this applied to us. It turns out that it's targeted at large-scale solar: the tax is only on orders with a value greater than $200, but that's still a problem for our box, which has about $1000 worth of panels. After a bit more panicking, I learned that the crucial point isn't where the panels are built: it's where the solar cells are made. The Obama administration is accusing China of selling silicon at below market prices, so if the silicon comes from China, they tax it. If not, there's no tax on the import, even if the panels are assembled in China. The owner of this factory is from Taiwan, so crossing my fingers, I sent them an email asking where their cells came from, and if they had some certificate that showed their origin. A couple days later, I got a response. The silicon is from Taiwan. Whew! That was a lucky bullet to dodge.

This is our first order with this factory, and it took about three weeks of back-and-forthing to set up our order and figure out the exact dimensions and weight and characteristics of all the panels. They're making our panels right now. We get our first samples from the factory next Tuesday, and if that looks good, we'll ship a big box of panels to our warehouse by the end of next week, and we'll be shipping by the end of November, only three weeks later than our initial estimates.

It's a lot of work, actually, for an experiment, but without it, we'd just be stumbling in the dark. And the future is coming closer ever day.

Written by alex — November 06, 2012

Solar Pocket Factory

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