Customers taught me *everything* I know
I'm an entrepreneur, inventor and tinkerer all in one. I just love to actually *do* something. There's something nice about coming up with an idea and then making it happen.
When I was around 14 I wrote my first application and was encouraged to share it with others by submitting it to a PC magazine. Amazingly I got a cheque by return for £50 and from then on I was bitten by the idea that you can create something someone wants, have fun and make some money all at the same time. Many years and many lessons later I now enjoy coming up with small electronics and solar items.
Here's some bits I'm most of proud of. First up and what I'm probably best known for is my Cottonpickers "Smallest Li-ion charger with display in the world" - Its used to gently and safely charge small Li-ion batteries. Here's the Octa version -which is probably the most useful with its many current settings and ability to switch the built in Voltmeter off and on at will Its designed and then the case is printed in ABS on my 3D printer. For the 8 setting switch I had to source and order over 1,000 from South Korea. Quite daunting the first time, and felt a little risky paying upfront, but now I do this sort of thing quite often. Making this taught me plenty of other lessons. Initially the lead that connected the charger to the batteries was cheap PVC based and I soldered a small metal washer on the end then stuck a magnet on the end of that to 'stick' the contacts to the battery. Many iterations later and I realised the best solution is use quality 18awg (thick) silicone based leads with quality triple plated Neo Magnets and solder in a particular way to get a good solid magnet fixed to the end. You need to solder the wire to the right part of the magnet to reduce stress on the joint. I even finally realised that it was best to have one lead shorter than the otherSolar is a bit of an obsession with me :-) I charge my gadgets at home off of a few panels on my garage roof, and really wanted a decent portable panel. Everything on the market was too low power only putting out a couple watts. It was here that I started to work with a Chinese solar factory to get some larger ones made up. I started with just specifying the new size and wattage getting around 20 made up at a time. One goal was to charge Apple stuff, and that resulted in some research on how Apple uses sensing resistors to only charge with apple stuff. Once I understood that I worked with the factory to create a special 'cottonpickers' PCB with pads for the USB ports and pads for the resistors. I managed to make a few 'schoolboy errors' in the early days - including getting the size of the panel wrong and getting a shipment of oversized panels with gaps between all the cells -doh! But I won't make that mistake again "measure twice, cut once" as my father would say!
I've always wanted a Solar cover for an iPad - and once I realised the 'trick' that Apple use to 'tell' it when a genuine charger is used I came up with my solar cover magnetic cover. It stops charging when its cloudy and needs you to replug it back in to start it again but I still love it, and loved making it. Making this taught me that sometimes you need to 'Just Do It' - so I literally chopped up one of my solar panels that I had and rounded it and tested it. It didn't work, so I tested some more. For the iPad cover I used various different diodes and panel voltages (so I have 4.5v panels, 5v panels and 5.5v panels kicking around still! from my pilot covers) until I got it to work, but it was a great day to hear the charging 'chime' :-)
For the Nona charger and the solar panels I've made I use a 3D printer. I use a BFB-3000 that cost me £2,000 to purchase (even now that seems a lot) Having a 3D printer is just awesome and allows designs in your head to come alive in your hand. The first thing I made (a really simple USB cover) took me hours and was so frustrating. Like anything when you are starting out it just takes time and practice. Watching a machine print in plastic something that you have designed is just the best. I want to get a better printer, but for now it does the job. At the time, the £2k seemed a lot of money, but its really allowed me to make things I never could have without it. I have since replaced a few parts on the printer and upgraded it to a triple head machine, with the aim of multicoloured creations, but its not really reliable enough to use all three nozzles together. Too much alignment and swapping of materials, so for now I tend to use two heads, one with biodegradable PLA and one with strong ABS
I've since developed a few ideas beyond my initial thinking. This is my 'solar folder' It uses 3 panels, each one is A4 in size. This panel is one where again I worked with the factory to get the right size (A4 is very cool as you can easily get A4 plastic boxes to put it on top off - and was the first reason for getting them A4) it also works out to be exactly 1.5amps which is pretty amazing power from a sheet of A4 paper sized solar. My first folder was pretty crude, but like a lot of things you can improve them. By the time I made this one I using a Brother SE400 sewing maching (cost around £400) to do the embroidery for the lettering. and I offered a number of different cloth colours and power outputs. The largest I make is a 4 x 1.5amp set up which provides 30 watts of power and can charge lead acid batteries. Making the folders taught me about lead acid charging and also about how solar works. Its pretty clever how solar will drop its voltage to meet the battery voltage. I'll explain in my 'Learn' section later if you are interested.It took a customer to teach me to use the binding on the edge which makes these so much neater than my first attempts. And it took another to encourage me to make the triple and work out how to charge Acid safely. The triple uses 30 solar cells in total which is ideal for lead acid without a charge controller. The small one is a 'mini-me' version - again customer request created this idea -