Irish Times Innovation Awards 2019: Manufacturing and Design category

This week we look at the innovators in engineering and design in industrial and consumer products

 

Frustration is the mother of innovation

Frustration with an existing product led Sean McGarry and his father, also Sean, to develop an entirely new type of shower caddy which neither rusts nor falls off the wall scattering its contents around the shower base. “We were fed up with metal shower organisers,” says McGarry. “They rusted and the suction cups never worked. They ended up on the floor of the shower with soap and shampoo bottles scattered everywhere.”

Indeed, according to McGarry, only one main type of shower organiser exists in the market today. “This is the metal caddy that we have all owned, and subsequently thrown out, at some stage in our lives. Despite over 20 million of these caddies being sold in the US annually, the products are totally unfit for purpose.”

The angst eventually turned into action. “I was in NUI Galway at the time,” McGarry recalls. “My father has worked in plastic manufacturing for 30 years. He spent a number of years working in Australia before returning to Ireland to start his own business. Dad kept talking about his frustrations with shower caddies and I said, stop talking and go ahead and make it, so he went to his workshop and did it.”

What he came up with was the prototype for the ShowerGem, a rustproof shower organiser that provides a neat and tidy place to store all of the usual shower essentials such as shampoos, soaps, razors and so on. “It offers a practical, stylish, modern solution to the everyday problem of shower clutter and its sleek, slimline design means it will suit any style of bathroom,” McGarry adds.

The ShowerGem’s patented perfect-fit shelf design securely hold bottles and users can even turn them upside down in order to get out that last drop of shampoo and as it is installed with a unique shower specific glue. Owners can feel safe knowing that it is not going to fall down on the floor.

“My father is a plastic fabricator by trade and the ShowerGem is made with engineering grade plastic. Metal rusts, glass shatters, plastic ticks all the boxes. You just apply a glue to a small wall bracket, let it dry for 24 hours and then clip the unit on.”

That was 2015, but there was a lot of work still to be done after that. “We spent over two years on further research and development of the product as well as testing the glue,” says McGarry. “The product has changed a lot since my father made the prototype in October 2018. The first model was quite big with sharp corners. The final product is smaller, more streamlined and much easier to clean. We launched it in October 2018 at the Ideal Homes Exhibition and sold 400 units over the weekend. Selling €15,000 worth of product in a single weekend was brilliant.”

That first weekend was no flash in the pan. “Business is great. Since the launch a year ago we have sold over 13,000 units in Ireland and the UK. We are talking to big retail chains in Great Britain and Ireland and are on the verge of breaking into America with shopping channels and other outlets.”

The business has been structured with rapid scaling in mind. “We will shortly launch in Germany, the US and a number of other countries. We outsource manufacturing to another Irish company at the moment. It’s very handy to have it manufactured just down the road. If an issue comes up we don’t have to get on a plane to China or some other place to sort it out. We have three full time staff at present and we outsource an awful lot of work to facilitate growth.”

The main focus for the future will be on the ShowerGem product but other innovations will be explored. “We are planning to look at other similar style products,” says McGarry. “There is a lot of other areas where people looking for extra strength but don’t have space for big units and we think we can provide solutions to those issues with innovative products. But the potential of Showergem is so huge that we are going to concentrate on that for the next while.”

Tommy Griffith, CEO and Pearce Gibbons, sales engineer at PEL Waste Reduction Equipment
Tommy Griffith, CEO and Pearce Gibbons, sales engineer at PEL Waste Reduction Equipment

Uberising the waste business

Created by Balla, Co Mayo based PEL Waste Reduction Equipment, BriteBin is a solar powered smart bin which only needs to be emptied every few days, has up to 10 times the capacity of a standard open bin, alerts the owner when it needs to be emptied, and cuts down dramatically on street litter and nuisance from seagulls and other wildlife.

“If you look at a standard street bin it’s an open unit which you put waste put in and it gets emptied periodically,” says PEL founder Tommy Griffith. “The Galway City Council bins on Shop Street are emptied four or five times a day, for example. The BriteBin cuts down on this quite dramatically.”

In recent tests, Greenwich Council in London found that it only had to be emptied every two or three days as opposed to four or five times per day for standard open bins.

The bin utilises a standard 120 litre polyethylene wheelie bin as its internal waste storage unit. Built in solar powered motorised compaction system considerably increases the bin’s holding capacity. It also features an integrated wireless waste level sensor, which monitors litter levels in real time, and communicates that back to the owner via PEL’s cloud-based data management platform, which in turn issues an alert when a bin needs to be emptied.

This real time monitoring and alert capability lets the municipal authority or other bin owner concentrate resources only on those bins which actually need to be emptied, thereby improving the overall efficiency of the collection service.

“There is a sensor looking down into the bin all the time,” Griffith points out. “When it hits a certain level it auto-compacts and keeps doing that until it’s full when it alerts the owner to empty it. It’s green, labour reducing, and reduces costs. The owner can log in and see the waste level at any time.”

The bin also addresses the climate change issue, he adds. “It reduces the number of trucks on the roads and cuts down the amount of litter to be collected. Overflowing bins and seagulls are a thing of the past as well thanks to the sealed unit. Waste falls into a standard wheelie bin of 120, 240 or 360 litres. These can be lifted using the standard hoists on a bin truck thus improving health and safety. The beauty of the BriteBin is that it ticks all the boxes for the world we are living in. By enabling waste collection on demand, we are Uberising waste.”

The system is connected by GSM to the SigFox internet of things (IoT) system. “SigFox is a low energy, low cost way of doing it,” Griffith explains. “It uses the old long wave radio frequency so uses less energy at a lower cost. We use the LoRa long range network in other countries. The BriteBin also has MBIoT (Microchip Bluetooth Internet of Things) connectivity so it is compatible to all networks.”

That connectivity offers other advantages. “The bin on the street is no longer a bin,” he says. “Our bin is becoming a street hub. It senses temperature and can send fire alerts. It can be an emergency phone charger if fitted with a USB connection. We are also looking at other applications. The bin is an important piece of real estate on the street and we are looking at what it can for people.”

The BriteBin is somewhat of a natural progression for the company. “We’ve been in the manufacturing of waste equipment since 2005,” Griffith points out. “We developed a glass bottle crusher that fits under a bar counter. The solar bin then came in, but the manufacturers had power issues. We started developing in the BriteBin in 2016 and launched it in January of 2018. We currently have 600 units installed in Ireland, the UK, Norway, Belgium, Israel and the US.”

The future will see the company building on that early success. “We are knocking on doors hard,” he says. “I am just back from Croatia, for example. Every country has an issue with street waste. There is one bin required for every 253 people and there are 33,000 bins on the streets of London. The congestion charge for a truck to go into central London is £150 and waste companies don’t want to go in if they don’t have to. We have 23 staff in PEL at present and plan to double that over the next 36 months. In addition, we have about 40 to 50 indirect employees. It is a product that will go global. We are working on tenders every week and working hard to set up distribution networks around the world.”

Padraic Timon, managing director and Colum O Laighin, sales and marketing manager, from Chameleon Colour Systems
Padraic Timon, managing director and Colum O Laighin, sales and marketing manager, from Chameleon Colour Systems

Innovation is survival

Next time you’re planning a spot of redecorating and choose that particular pastel shade from the colour card you might pause to consider the technology involved in getting the exact colour you require and matching it precisely when you run out. The paint manufacturers can’t possibly supply the full range of colours on the card while no shop could stock them all.

Consumer choice is fulfilled by the computerised paint mixing machines found in DIY and specialist paint and decorating stores around the world and most advanced model available comes from Irish company Chameleon Colour Systems.

Chameleon managing director Padraic Timon uses the example of a coffee machine to describe the product. “That’s a tool to make coffee but it can be used as a marketing tool as well. But the machine needs to work well. If it goes down the shop can’t sell coffee. If a paint shop customer wants to choose a colour, the shop needs a machine. They can’t sell all the different colours if they haven’t got a machine. Our customers are paint manufacturers who reluctantly use our machines. If they could supply all the colours themselves, they would.”

The paint manufacturers have little or no contact with the machines after they are installed at the point of sale, however. This inevitably leads to reliability issues.

“The model is quite weak,” says Timon. “Our focus for the past 10 years has been on innovation and customer support. Our existence is based on innovation. We have to give customers a reason to buy from us. The Chinese have entered the market over the past 20 years and have pushed down prices. Our latest machine is quite different. We looked at the point of sale issues to see if we could solve them and raise the bar in how they are managed. We started to develop the new machine in 2016.”

He points to simple user errors which the machine addresses. “If you misalign a paint tin on a mixing machine it will make it unstable and cause a breakdown. This happens all too often. The machine detects stress and self-corrects. The machine acts as the first responder. The operator also gets shown a video to explain how the issue can be avoided in future. We are the first in the industry to incorporate a screen to communicate with the operator.”

The screen comes into play for a range of issues. “When the machine starts up it runs a best practice tutorial for 15 seconds. When an employee presses the emergency button and calls for support the machine plays a video to assist them to deal with issue. The old idea of getting technical call outs for everything is obsolete. Rather than producing idiot proof machines we make them more collaborative. If a machine is due for service, the engineer can look at the history of machine remotely. The machines are internet enabled and communicate with the paint companies to plan maintenance or give the engineer advance information about the problem they need to solve. If the machine just requires a setting change, they we dial in and do it remotely.”

Chameleon can also offer that service. “The machines are pressure sensitive and it is possible to adjust the pressure remotely if a machine sends a signal indicating that is required. We are currently doing it for a customer in New Zealand. The great thing is that consumers are oblivious to all this happening in the background.”

Market reception has been very good, according to Timon. “Converting existing customers to new technology can be a challenge because of the change involved, but they warm to it when they see it in action,” he says. “We have been at two significant trade shows this year and without doubt it has opened doors to us that were closed before this. We are now talking to two global paint companies which have been buying our competitors’ products up until now. When they see the machine self-correct or when they see the video playing following the emergency stop the reaction is great.”

Chameleon has also launched a service app for technicians. “Technicians around the world speak different languages but encounter the same problems,” Timon explains. “All of the technical information they need is now on their phone. The app is able to tell them what the issue is, what tools they need to fix it and plays a demo video to explain how to fix it. Innovation is survival. It’s a continuous process that doesn’t stop. If you want to stay in business, you have to keep innovating.”

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