Back in January 2013, when we first considered taking our senior year design project, affectionately named Clydesdale, into production we were told to make drawings of our CAD, send them to a manufacturer, ship the product, and sit back while cash came in. Easy.
Needless to say, it was not as easy as 1, 2, 3. Hardware is hard. Manufacturers and machine shops didn’t want to talk to us after they found out we couldn’t front tens of thousands of dollars for parts and tooling. Going full time was pretty equivalent to choosing to eat ramen, rice, and beans while working two to a computer on CAD, frantically trying to apply DFM (design for manufacturing) principles we were learning from a borrowed textbook.
This was our reality check. We’ve worked for three years with various industry experts in academia, and in industry, ranging from small scale single part metal manufacturing to massive scale operations in China. Here are the steps we took to take our idea and put it in the hands of real delivery professionals around the world:
Step 1. Find a champion.
We were incredibly lucky to catch the eye of Anheuser Busch very early on. They understood the delivery better than anyone as they move more beer than anyone else globally. It turns out that anything we use, consume, or otherwise take for granted has been delivered to that specific point. Someone had to spend time and energy positioning it there. Moving tens of thousands of kegs to bars and restaurants daily is tough, especially since most of them are stored in the cellars of the older buildings. Not every location has a freight elevator, loading dock, or state of the art infrastructure and so AB delivery professionals had to get creative in their solutions to get kegs and cases down down stairs, which definitely isn’t the easiest. See below.
Then the goods are at risk of damage and the customer accounts are at risk of wear. Delivery companies must muscle, maneuver, and bounce hundred of millions of pounds putting their delivery professionals at risk of injury, goods at risk of damage, and customer accounts at the risk of wear.
AB became our champion. They exposed us to their problems and gave us access to their distribution centers in Boston, Denver, and New York where we would trial prototype after prototype. Their continued interest also gave us legitimacy. They gave our effort relevance.
Step 2: Simplify and Focus. Know your problem.
The hardest problem was deciding what not to do. With limited resources, re-designing wheels, extrusions, handles, were not only time intensive, but each one required their own supplier, their own tooling, drawings, etc. We were on a deadline. An I-Beam here, a handle there, all are novel and fun to redesign, but we had to identify that which actually made the biggest difference to the customer? How does a young bootstrapped company focus on what’s most important?
We spent hundreds of hours in the field with delivery professionals and with safety managers. It turns out the highest risk of injuries actually occurred either on the stairs or because of the chronic impact to the joints and limbs as a result of bouncing and heaving the goods down each step.
We have stairs and hundreds of pounds of weight and an industry where there day to day tools (hand trucks) are so ingrained in the work flow that the adoption curve is slow. We knew we needed to solve three physics problems, how to enable something to roll down the stairs with stability, how could we take energy out of the system, and how to enable a human to do it safely. Our treads always enabled at least two points of contact on each, and our custom designed grip prevented slippage. Built in passive braking took energy out of the system, and ergonomically design handle lengths and shapes ensured the drivers would lift with their legs and not their backs.
Step 3. Make sure your product is usable.
All the design effort is useless if no one wants to use the product. Delivery professionals wanted something familiar and something that didn’t get in the way of their day to day. We made sure to work with the familiar hand truck design and add a single release folding mechanism to keep the treads out of the way when they weren’t needed. This meant rapid prototyping and actually testing the prototypes in the field with the driver’s, sometimes facing harsh and sobering criticism, which pushed us to re-design the most important aspects.
Step 4. Partner with an expert.
We were very fortunate to partner with Magliner, the world’s leading manufacturer of route distribution solutions and a producer of high quality hand trucks. We worked with them because of what they know best. Magliner does all assembly in house in the U.S.A. and has a brilliant extrusion designer in house who had built in features into their parts to make they integration of new designs easy. We didn’t have to invest energy re-inventing the hand truck, we could innovate on enabling our key innovation, delivery of heavy loads down stairs safely and efficiently.
They also helped us with the most important part of the usability, namely reliability and durability. We worked with Magliner to put the Glyde Hand Truck through life cycle testing. No one wants to use a product that doesn’t work if it gets slightly damaged, or after a year of wear. The Glyde Hand Truck is robust and useful.
Step 5. Scale and develop a supply chain.
At the end of the day Magliner has an incredible supply chain, all U.S. based. We worked with them to optimize our custom parts and had cost reviews to ensure profitability. We had to do a few prototype runs to ensure everything fit together. We learned to never invest in tooling to scale too early, last minute changes are always unanticipated but a necessity in reacting to field feedback. Again, investing in the right partner pays dividends here.
Step 6. Ship it.
Its important to ensure that you have a quick turn-around time with your customers, and good and honest communication is critical. Assembly, inventory management, and efficient shipping methods can make the difference between being profitable and not. Finally ensure that there is a clear and established feedback process for your product. You want to be able to learn from how it is doing in the field so that you can take care of your customers and react to any additional changes.
At the end the day its about understanding your customer, about forming the right partnerships and understanding where your expertise is, and its about commitment to the idea and to the cause. In our case, its the last 100 meters of delivery.