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How Far is It from a “Prototype” to a “Product”? Here’s Our True Story.

Evolution of ALCHEMA

 


By Young Yang (CTO)

Hi, I’m Young. I mean my name is Young Yang, CTO of ALCHEMA. From the day we got championship from Mobileheros, a startup competition held in Taiwan,  I’ve been asked the same questions over and over: “Is the product ready?”, “When will it hit the market?” It almost feels like every Chinese New Year, when all the relatives care so much about when you will be married.

 

How complicated is the process of a “competition result” evolving to a “product”? The former is a “handicraft”, which you only need an “A-Ha” moment and some basic techniques. The latter, however, is an “industry” which you need to consider from cost, viability of manufacture, reliability, all the way to warranty, refund, repair …...etc. As a CTO, you have to swim in an ocean called “questions”, trying to make thousands of decisions till you reach the wonderland called “product.”

 

Our product strategy is straightforward: To create a product which is “simple but best.” On this premise, our priority is look>function>cost. We hope Alchema can bring a feeling to our customers that its value is beyond the price tag. That’s why we ask highly on design and UX(user experience). All this effort is to make sure that Alchema can become a reality, a product that people cannot resist.  

 

    I’ll introduce our journey of creating Alchema in four steps to share with you, our supporters, some behind-the-scene details, and to those who are interested in becoming a part of hardware startup.

 

Cracking the eggshell

 

    When we were in the Mobileheros competition, we established what problem we’re going to solve: To make anyone able to homebrew easily, even beginners.

 

First, we thought an alcohol sensor is probably all we need, but it turned out we were dead wrong after visiting some experts in the field. Homebrewing is not only about changing of alcohol content, but also about temperature, pressure, air-tight...etc.

    

    Then we realize, the major reason causing failure in homebrewing is that beginners don’t know about these stuffs. Their lack of experience, resource, and guidance may lead to contamination, thus the weird taste. Or they might not properly release the CO2 produced by yeast and cause a mess.

 

    As soon as we landed on a problem to solve, we need to make the solution happen. We connect different sensors and UVC-LED light to the Development Board. Then, we 3D-printed a shell and asked a classmate from Civil Engineering Department to drill some holes on it, in order to let the sensors to stick out. Put the board in. Glue the edge. Done! Our first prototype.

 

We used it to verify the EE(electrical engineering) part, and the possibility that it can help to monitor fermentation process. It got us the championship, yet something made like this is still far from a product, in terms of its look, viability, cost, and reliability.

 

Problems, and more problems!

 

    After the competition, we decided to start a company and my job comes to verifying the product-to-be. I started to check whether every function we planned is achievable, and evaluate how much that costs. At the same time, we tried to think out of the box and see if there’s any more efficient solution exists that gives us what we want. So we erased the functions which are not essential and kept those we really need. Months went by, we gradually got a better grasp of what we’re really shooting for.

 

    During this stage, the biggest pivot of the product is from a “smart cap” to a “smart device.”  The reason is simple: we can’t just give our users a cap and ask them to find whatever bottle it fits. Besides, a cap can’t solve the problem of gas-releasing. So, why not make a tasteful device which will make a brewing experience even better?

    

    On the other hand of the product development, we started to plan how we will upload and save the data smoothly, as well as analyse it. We were very picky in this part because we know every piece of data is unique and important to our users.  

 

At last, we created the second proof of concept(POC2). However, since we didn’t have enough knowledge about mechanical design, we didn’t notice that our outsourcer made a mistake on the size. So, when we finally get the prototype, we couldn’t fit the electric board in, neither can we test whether it could be sealed and release gas.  

 

Although we made a mistake on the prototype, we did a right thing that we constantly asked potential users what they need and received valuable feedback. We gradually understood that the journey would be much longer than we expected. Therefore, we tried harder to revise the design according to the feedback, and make the look more tasteful.

 

Days when you make 20 calls a day

 

    Now we know what functions we need and how to bridge between hardware and software, we started to design the look of the device.  Since EE, mechanism and functions are all very important, we spent a lot of time communicating among different outsourcers to arrange all the functions in the design.

 

For example, if we want LED light on the top of the device, we need to decide where we should place the lights, and that will affect both how we design the layout on the board and how the wires should run in the device.(pretty complicated, huh?) That’s why I made 20 calls everyday, talking to outsourcers back and forth.

 

    Moreover, as we design the look, we have to consider whether it’s possible to go to mass production. If we design a magnificent pattern on the device, only to find out later that it costs an arm and a leg for the molds, it’s not an efficient design then.

 

    Apart from industrial design, we started talking to manufacturers and get quotes from them, including PCBA factory, plastic factory, package company, suppliers... etc. We were trying to figure out how we are going to package and ship the product, and make sure it’s safe.  

 

    The most difficult thing in this stage is, for such a young and small startup like us, we don’t have money nor enough quantity in need. There was once that I told a charger supplier that we need 3000 units, and they turned me down immediately. They say, “If we make 3 bucks per unit, I only make 9000 bucks from you. It’s not worth my time and effort.” Then they never picked up when I called.

    

    During this stage, I looked at the phone book and contacted more than 300 vendors. Sometimes I had to ask my friends or family to introduce me the vendors they know, just for a better chance they won’t ignore me. Whenever we met some vendors that looked down on us, we always told ourselves: by the time we become a large and strong company, they will regret how they looked upon us. Luckily, hard work pays off. We found like-minded partners in each aspect, and work together for our mutual dream. We are very thankful for them.

 

    At the end of this stage, we realized our design from scratch on paper into a prototype. However,  something still fell short in our expectation. For example, the LED lights are not blended evenly, and the front door doesn’t open and close smoothly. We also got some feedback from potential customers that the design is not good enough. So we made a hard decision and switched to another design house. For that, we had to postpone our launch on Kickstarter

 

Almost there!

 

Working with a new design house and coming up with a new design was both desperate and exciting at the same time. Thanks to the strong support from our new partner, we discussed thoroughly about everything based on what we learned from the past prototypes and user feedback. For a new and small company like us, resources are limited, so we had to spend every penny most efficiently and get highest value from it.

 

I believe you already know the following story. Our new design is ready and it got positive feedback in terms of look and function. To be honest, when I saw the finished version, I almost cried. From the first step we took after the competition all the way to this point, a step far from mass production. My feeling is beyond what words can describe.

 

Now, we are preparing for mass production. We still need some time to establish and test the manufacture process. We have to make sure every step is solid, smooth, low mistake rate, and make it most efficient.



     These four steps, are taken little by little with sweat and tears, in terms of hardware, firmware, App, and cloud. We’re trying to finish the complicated puzzle, only to bring a “simple but best” product to our users. I’m glad to share with you my pressure, effort, and excitement. Hopefully you could continue to support us. And of course, next time when my relatives ask me “Is the product ready?”, “When will it hit the market?” I can show them this article!



    If you want to know more about any more details about Alchema’s development,or any technical questions. Please reach me at young@alchema.com


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