Back in 2004, the treemagineers project started out with Chris, Beddes and I working together, discussing the way in which we work and the tools we use. That we ended up involved in development of PPE is more a by-product of the fact that the result of those discussions was that we felt that part of the problem was that we were lacking the right tools to do the job – and the rest, as they say, is history.
In retrospect I cannot help but cringe at the fact that we started off with two of the larger projects we have ever been involved in, the Hitch Climber pulley and the treeMOTION harness. From the get-go we were clear that we wanted to be financially independent and would invest as much of our time, money and effort required to ensure the product we help to place on the market is as safe and as close to perfect as possible.
Did we always succeed in this?
Of course not, yet I can confidently and honestly say that this is what we were striving for over all these years, going the extra mile, performing testing above and beyond what is required by the standards, spending substantial time and effort on extensive field validation, going through x-iterations of prototypes.
Did we remain financially independent throughout?
Yes, we did. To this day we have not had an investor breathing down our neck or bank pressuring us to pay back a loan. This does not make us especially clever, mind you, it was simply a decision we made at the beginning of this project. It was made possible by the fact that people bought into the designs we were involved with, by buying the treeMOTION, Hitch Climber pulley, rope tools or any other piece of kit. This of course only continues for as long as people perceive a value in what we are contributing and what the companies we are involved with are offering – and buy the product. This is very much something we are aware and appreciative of!
As you can imagine, the process described above certainly had its tense moments: that moment when you commit to a further set of prototypes or tooling, when you realise that a competitor is working on a similar product, when you get a validation report from the field flagging up an issue – and finally, when you launch the product, holding your breath to see what kind of response it is going to get. All this really focuses your mind, forcing you to be diligent and methodical, really trying to get things right in as few a steps as possible, anticipating possible issues, trying to foresee possible operator errors and considering efficient manufacturing.
In my experience, there is no lack of pain and frustration in gear development.
But on the plus side, it gives me tools to work with today that back in the day I always wished I had. I sometimes think back to when Chris and I were working together, commenting for the umpteenth time on how cool it would be to be able to connect into the becket on Petzl’s old red PO5 pulley – well, today we have a much wider range of tools and elements to choose from. Including pulleys with beckets to tie into.
Today, in contrast, there is a different route to product development, the Kickstarter route (this by no means the only route, it can be done via any crowdfunding platform, but for simplicity sake I will use Kickstarter as a placeholder, representative for all of these).
Using this route to develop equipment differs considerably from the route described above. You present a concept or prototype, people give you their money, which – if successfully funded – results in a batch of further evolved prototypes. The plus side of this is that there is no scraping together of funds involved for the developer, the cash is there from the get-go – other peoples’ money. However, when you make a development phase this easy, the down side is that the incentive to get it right straight away is reduced, as the financial pressure is less severe. Conceivably, in a next step you could always ask for more money for further evolution of the project.
Also, the price which is established during a Kickstarter campaign has nothing to do with efficient batch production by an established manufacturer, but is rather the price which has been established which the end-user is prepared to pay in order to see the project move forwards. If the device is eventually batch produced, the Kickstarter price has already been established for an initial, limited batch, which consists of prototyping and development, i.e. a defined, short time frame. Normally the costs of prototyping and development are spread across the whole life of a product. There is therefore a risk that Kickstarter pricing raises the price of mass produced products.
Further, there is the question of whether Kickstarter products are likely to meet the requirements of quality assurance and performance criteria of category three Personal Protective Equipment employed in fall protection systems.
Also, the crowdfunding route may not actually establish a route to mass production, rather a single batch of prototypes may be the only outcome. Which, while it may be interesting, does not move the industry forwards.
Of course I am generalising here. I am by no means implying that products resulting out of a crowdfunded process are per se bad, on the contrary, this route can potentially result in very interesting, innovative tools being developed. But I do think one has to be aware of a these significant differences between the two approaches – and of the potential consequences they may have.