Kipp Bradford

This week our guest is Kipp Bradford. Kipp is an an engineer, inventor, and oftentimes-educator. We talk about low volume/high value manufacturing, the tradeoffs of domestic & international trade, and manufacturing your products in-house.

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Notes:

Show transcript

Spencer Wright - 00:00 - Everything is actually kind of working, although this is only the second or third time I've recorded down here, so we'll see. We'll see.

Kipp Bradford - 00:07 - Excellent. Happy to be the second Beta tester.

Spencer Wright - 00:13 - This is The Prepared. Today, my guest is Kipp Bradford. Kipp is qualified in all kinds of ways that I can't even really put my mind around.

Kipp Bradford - 00:34 - Not sure that I can either.

Spencer Wright - 00:35 - Cool, Kipp. Well, welcome.

Kipp Bradford - 00:38 - Thank you, Spencer. It's good to be here.

Spencer Wright - 00:40 - Why don't we actually start with who are you? What do you do?

Kipp Bradford - 00:46 - I call myself an engineer because academically, I have two degrees as a biomedical engineer, but I've spent a lot of time designing and building things. I like to be much more hands-on than the theoretical academic background that I have as a research science engineer. Despite my biomedical engineering background and interest in medical devices, I actually spent the first ten years of my career as a toy inventor. Five years into that career as a toy inventor, I had some overlap as an entrepreneur, so I started three businesses in that time period with some colleagues. One was a medical device, one was a golf club, one was a hearing aid. Those businesses all failed for various reasons. And various reasons are not that atypical, they usually come down to people more than they come down to money or ideas. By the time, you get venture capital investment, enough people have vetted your ideas and your market and your technology to know that there's a chance. But it's really hard to understand how your partners will behave when things go south or when things even get the slightest bit tough.

Startups are really fragile. It's easy to break them. And that's what happened in these cases. Then after that string of startups and winding down the toy inventor career, I became faculty at Brown University and taught entrepreneurship and innovation and design and then launched a couple of more startups. Then was manufacturing some products under my own brand. Then got hired, I left Brown, had another startup, then got hired to a funky position. I interviewed for a job at MIT called Professor of Other at the Media Lab. I got hired and then promptly told, “well, here’s the funny thing. We’re going to give you two years to do whatever you want to do. You won’t get to call yourself Professor of Other yet. You’ll be a senior research scientist at the Media Lab, but we want you to create a new field of science. That’s your job for the next two years and if we like it enough, we'll keep you on as a tenure track professor.”

Spencer Wright - 03:10 - A new field of science? That sounds like Newtonian level shit. How broad was that actually?

Kipp Bradford - 03:22 - Well, I was given that edict and I really didn't know where to start. So I said, well, I think they hired me because I do a lot of weird wacky stuff. I've got new theories of economics that are based on thermodynamics systems. I've got new programming language ideas and a lot of things that I was super fascinated by intellectually and I would run these. I had a five faculty mentors that were senior Media Lab faculty who were just helping me try to figure out what this new field of science was going to be, based on my interests and my skills. Assuming that I had unique interest and unique skills, those should ideally, if I was qualified, parlay into something significant. That was the premise. So I spent the first six months rolling out ideas that were aggregations of my different interests.

So like I really have all these ideas about thermodynamics and all these other ideas about economics and design and computer programming languages and some mixture of that, I should be able to turn that into a new field. When I interviewed I had demonstrated or shown a couple projects that were maybe a little bit more oddball, like refrigeration. I had some weird refrigerator systems and weird air conditioning systems that I had developed and manufactured and that caught people's attention, I guess.

Right after I got hired, several faculty came to me and said, “oh, so you're the guy that's interested in refrigeration, can do refrigeration, can you fix the air conditioning in this building?” And it was just like, “yeah, and while I'm at it, I'll clean the toilets and redo some of the plumbing because you’re basically calling me a tradesperson.” It wasn't meant as an insult, it was just like the air conditioning in this building sucks.

Like we have this beautiful building, the MIT Media Lab, but it's just uncomfortable all the time and people are wearing sweaters in the summer and they're walking around in shorts in the winter and it's all a mess.

Six months in, after my colleagues saying, “oh no, you know, your economic theory is great, but you're not an economics professor,” or you know, “your design work is amazing, but it just doesn't feel tangible enough for a Media Lab professor.”

Six months of that, and I said, “I give up. I'm just going to go into my garage and make myself an air-conditioned chair because you're right, the air conditioning in this building is miserable and I'm always uncomfortable.” There’s no way I'm going to create a new field of science. I might as well just have some fun for the next year and a half on your money.

Well, that's started getting people's attention because I was like, “and while I'm at it, I'm going to rethink refrigerators and I'm going to rethink air conditioning and really just rethink thermodynamics, because, thermodynamics, we’re just doing it wrong.”

You know, I look at buildings and it's a mechanical engineered system, except the entire purpose of that building is almost like an exoskeleton for people. You know, it's the boundary layer between us and the outside environment. And that exoskeleton is not functioning the way it should. It's wasting energy. It makes us uncomfortable. Nobody likes the temperature in the Media Lab. So why don't I fix that? Yeah, I'll fix that.

And as I really got into it, I was like, “oh wait, there’s a whole untapped world here.” If I combine biomedical engineering and thermodynamics and HVAC and refrigeration and these trades that have been overlooked by engineering, it's like, well, Willis Carrier figured that out in 1918. So we didn't have to do that anymore. That became my purpose. Like, “oh, actually you're right. Willis Carrier did figure it out in 1918. A lot has changed since then.”

We don't run elevators off of city water and then just dump the water into the sewer when the elevator has to come back down because that's really wasteful and we have limited resources and water's expensive. Energy is expensive. A nuclear power plant costs a lot of money to build. So let's figure out smarter ways to use the energy. Let's figure out better ways to make people comfortable. And that became my research and the work that I'm doing today.

Spencer Wright - 07:45 - How are you doing it now? I saw a little bit of this couple of months ago, but what I saw, as I understand it, was like a remarkably inexpensive chiller that could bring things down to very close to absolute zero, but you were using it to make ice cream pancakes. So it was disorienting in a way.

Kipp Bradford - 08:08 - Well, not quite absolute zero, so minus 80 degrees C is the target. And if you were to go buy a commercial minus 80 degree freezer, it would cost you $10,000 maybe for research grade system. So there's a whole world of do it yourself biology, DIY bio, and hackerspaces that are interested in hacking on bio. The problem with hacking on biology is we've solved a lot of the DIY technologies in that space, but not refrigeration. But not a lot of people who, because it's this trade that we figured out, have spent time getting involved in the trade to understand what it means to refrigerate to minus 80 degrees C.

So it's still $10,000 to do that until I built a very low cost minus 80 degree system that would cost you maybe $500 or $600 to make a small freezer, two cubic feet instead of 20 cubic feet. But still something that's functional, portable, compact, serviceable by someone who's not an expert in ultra-low temperature refrigeration freezing.

Spencer Wright - 09:17 - So you designed this thing, you engineered—engineered is really the word, right? And then what happens to it? Are you marketing this? Are you developing this as a business?

Kipp Bradford - 09:32 - So I manufacture now, and actually before I started at MIT and around the middle of my time is faculty at Brown University, I started a business in the line of products that were advanced thermal systems. So heating and cooling products that tended to be compact, lightweight, low-voltage, and highly portable. So applications like a Medivac where you've got somebody in a helicopter, you need to maintain their body temperature as they've had some traumatic injury and you lay a blanket over them, you flip a switch on a box and that box keeps the temperature at 98 degrees or 94 degrees Fahrenheit, whatever you want that to be. So I was developing these systems that were basically small niche markets for refrigeration and cooling technologies. When I got hired to MIT, that kind of became backburnered for the first six months and then it became the focus of my research.

And as I did this very low temperature cooling system, obviously great applications in do-it-yourself biology, but a lot of other applications. So I'm evaluating where it makes most sense to build and sell those. I think just as a public service, getting some out in the DIY bio world would be great. There is a commercial product that is an anti-griddle. It's a trademarked name, the anti-griddle, which is a high end tool for culinary artists.

Spencer Wright - 11:10 - This is basically what I saw.

Kipp Bradford - 11:11 - Yes, that is what you saw. So the anti-griddle, you can put something on it instead of heating it up quickly, it cools it off very quickly. And if you want to make a frozen desserts, great. For doing candy, where you have to control the transition temperatures to control the crystalline structure in like a melted sugar, it’s a nice tool for something like that.

So it's got great applications in the culinary world and it’s on my list of products, but it's not the first one. I've got some scientific cooling systems that are just much higher margin. The products in the scientific cooling world sell for maybe $5,00-$10,000 and not super high volumes, but the sort of thing that I can manufacture myself in house by hand—actually my hand if I have to, instead of hiring someone. I sell 10 or 20 scientific chillers year and it's a good business.

Spencer Wright - 12:13 - Interesting. So what are the components of a scientific chiller?

Kipp Bradford - 12:19 - It depends on how good your scientific chiller is. So for a low end, say $5,000 scientific chiller, typically you have refrigeration compressor, you've got some copper tubing, you have a heat exchanger to get rid of the heat. So hot site exchange are called the condenser. You have a cold site exchange called an evaporator and you have a control computer and there's usually some, either a chilled fluid reservoir that might be a tank or just a water bath. So that's a basic scientist chiller where, you know, if I have a water bath, I want to keep it at 15 degrees Celsius for maintaining some process at temperature. And then stainless steel tank surrounded by some cooling coils. You set the temperature and the thermostat tells the controller when to turn the compressor on and off.

Spencer Wright - 13:14 - So there you're just maintaining some water at a certain temperature and then whatever the person using it is that they're working on a test tube and dunking or leaving that in the water, right?

Kipp Bradford - 13:26 - Right. So you might have something like that. Or you might have someone who's doing, say photolithography, that needs to be super precise and you have to maintain a very, very, very constant temperature in that process or else the thermal variations will cause expansions and contractions at a scale that will throw off your precision photolithography. For example, if you're going to make a next-generation processor, that is really critical to maintain temperatures plus or minus like 100th of a degree Celsius. Things like laser cooling. The glowforge laser printer—the glowforge laser cutter, sorry.

Spencer Wright - 14:13 - Well, don’t they call it the laser 3D printer, or something like that?

Kipp Bradford - 14:16 - Yeah, something like that. So the glowforge products have cooling in them because you have to maintain temperature of the laser, not just so it overheats, but so the laser is stable because as the temperature changes, the lasing cavities properties change. And as that happens, your laser precision goes off pretty significantly.

Spencer Wright - 14:36 - Just thermal expansion thing or something like that? Or is it—?

Kipp Bradford - 14:39 - I don't know exactly what the physics are. Thermal expansion is definitely part of it, but I think just the reaction kinematics like whatever's going on molecularly, in the gases, you want to keep it at one temperature to keep them stable. So there's a whole bunch of processes and systems where temperature control is important. Beyond like hot summer day and I want ice cream.

Spencer Wright - 15:06 - Okay. So you are manufacturing these things in the tens? And you are doing it mostly?

Kipp Bradford - 15:15 - Yes. So far I'm doing like 98% of the work. Occasionally I'll have someone come in and help like bend copper tubing or do some quality control.

Spencer Wright - 15:24 - Yeah. What do the manufacturer processes span? I mean, you’re obviously purchasing some components, you have a motor or a pump, I guess, right?

Kipp Bradford - 15:35 - So I'll actually start the process a little earlier actually, which is that finding components is really hard. You can't just go to DigiKey or Mouser or McMaster Carr or Amazon and buy raw materials. So I'll start with refrigeration grade copper tubing.

Spencer Wright - 15:56 - What is refrigeration grade tubing like? Is it a purity of the material or a pressure rating or something like that?

Kipp Bradford - 16:04 - It’s purity of the material, it's a pressure rating, and it's a flexibility. So I need something that I can bend into the shape that I need and it won't lose strength. So that tends to be going to a refrigeration supply place and getting like a 50 foot or 100 foot rolls of quarter-inch copper tubing. Also the ends are capped and it's filled with nitrogen and that prevents oxidation from getting in and becoming a problem on the inside. So you think about a refrigerator—your household refrigerator is supposed to run 25 years with no maintenance, no oil changes. This is a piston running back and forth in a chamber constantly rubbing metal against metal. And that can do that for 25 years without failing for the most part.

Spencer Wright - 16:50 - That’s remarkable.

Kipp Bradford - 16:51 - Totally remarkable. And the evolution of precision on these compressors is just impressive. They're manufactured in millions of units every month across the globe and that they can maintain these high precision, long lifespan, performances is really cool. So I find some compressors, I find some copper tubing, I find a vendor to either purchase from or custom manufacture things called filter dryers. So a filter dryer is in line with the copper tubing. It removes any moisture from the line that would mix with the oils and create acids that would eat away your compressor and your tubing or any dust particles that might clog a compressor and scratch the surfaces. Then the heat exchangers. So the first step is just identifying the components, figuring out where in the world I can get them, and then getting them in-hand.

Spencer Wright - 17:53 - Yeah. So where do you get them? Like, McMaster Carr has some of that stuff. You can search and you can figure out some company makes a range of filter dryers, I’m sure, right?

Kipp Bradford - 18:07 - Absolutely.

Spencer Wright - 18:08 - And then usually you'll go to them and they're like, “oh, we deal in quantities of 100,000 or something like that.” Right? What’s the next step? Because you have to figure out how this thing is made and then find a person who does that process?

Kipp Bradford - 18:20 - So it's either going through a distributor that works in the industry and services people, supplies equipment to people who are doing service calls. So you’re a restaurant and your freezer broke or your refrigerated case broke and some technician comes out and gets a torch and some components of repairs that the distributors supply components for those use cases. But when you're buying 100, even something as a small quantity as 100, it's above the technician quantities where someone's buying maybe five and it's way below industry quantities were amendment order might be, as you said, 100,000. So finding suppliers who are willing to deal with, with a weird little guy like me, it’s tricky. I’ve sourced the globe so I have filter dryers actually custom manufactured in China.

I have one heat exchanger that's custom manufactured in Thailand, a second heat exchanger that's custom manufactured in York, Pennsylvania, another heat exchanger that I had been getting from Korea, but moved production of that to China. My fans come from Europe. My water pumps come from the U.K. My water tanks were custom made, but I'm probably gonna move to an automotive product of all things. So it's been kind of funky. And actually, my sheet metal cases come from Canada.

It’s been funky as a single designer, single engineer trying to assemble the supply chain and then writing checks to all these places and sending money by a wire transfer. I've had several wire transfer problems, like several wire transfers just disappeared. They have no record and the company doesn't exist anymore.

I had one wire transfer to Korea where the company said they never got it, but the bank said they did and their bank said they didn't. It was like, that's a wire transfer. You're supposed to be able to reconcile that. Like that’s exactly why we have the system. And I switched. I'd been using a local bank in Rhode Island. I ended up switching to Bank of America because they had a wire transfer audit department that was solely about tracing international wire transfers.

Spencer Wright - 20:45 - So weird.

Kipp Bradford - 20:46 - Yeah. And in several cases, they were able to figure out where the money had ended up and recover it.

Spencer Wright - 20:52 - And then you’re also shipping carton size quantities, right? This is not pallets, right? It’s not full containers, either?

Kipp Bradford - 21:02 - It’s definitely not full containers. Cartons when I can, pallets when I have to. I had a pallet of heat exchangers come from Thailand and the components were $600. The shipping and handling with $2,700.

Spencer Wright - 21:20 - Yeah. Yeah. We’ve dealt with similar things recently.

Kipp Bradford - 21:25 - Early days. Early on in this process, I got flamed on a open DIY bio board and the complaint was I looked on Alibaba and I see all these parts and I know what they cost. And you're a highway robber, you're barking up the cost of this stuff so much. And my response was, if you think that's the case, go and build it yourself. The product that I had then was open source. You see what the components are, you see the vendors, you have full transparency into what those things are. Go get them yourself.

So by the time you get all the parts and they all land at my shop in Rhode Island, then they have to be prepped and assembled. So prepping is cutting and shaping copper tubing into the right lengths and right bends that I need. And I've gotten really good at that process and partly because I've redesigned everything to have right angle bends or 180 degree bends.

No more funky angles. Just simplifying the design made fabrication much easier. Everything gets cut, bent, cleaned, prepped, and then connected. And then braised. So after all the prep work, I hook up a nitrogen tank to the copper tubing, purge the tubes, actually glow nitrogen through the tubes that you don't get oxygen when you braise them. And then I get out a high temperature, oxyacetylene torch. I flow a phosphorus copper, silver fosters copper or something, some mixture. I'm raising flux into a brazing rod into the joints. And then I actually pressure test everything with pressurized nitrogen, dunk it in the tank of water, look for any leaks.

And if I had more money, I would have a helium leak tester. Helium is a nice small molecule, it tends to leak through any gaps very quickly and the leak testers can detect small quantities of helium leaking. So in lieu of that, I have a trash can, I fill it with 30 gallons of water, and I dunk things and shake it so that there no lingering bubbles and then watch to see if any bubbles merge. And when that proves out the tightness of the system, then I pull a vacuum. Once the vacuum is holding and I'm really confident that system is solid, I'll put it on a test bench and I'll charge it with refrigerant and then test it and make sure it runs according to spec. So that process used to take two to three days for each system—

Spencer Wright - 24:16 - Like full time, two to three days or?

Kipp Bradford - 24:18 - Not quite full time. Basically like 18 hours of work from start to finish and now I've got it down to about an hour. And in a lot of that was, I was doing it all myself, you know, I designed everything on the computer and then I said, well I can't pay anyone to build these because I haven't made any money yet, so I'll build myself.

And in the process of doing so, I just said, whoa, I need to change this, I need to change that. And after just going through the design and thinking, well, could I change this that I designed poorly? Yes. And by the end of six, eight months of building things and being like, oh my God, I have to find a way to make this go faster. You find ways to make it go faster and that ultimately results in a much, much better set of products.

Spencer Wright - 25:05 - Wait so, sorry, one detail from earlier on. You said that you purchased this copper quarter inch copper tubing and it comes on a roll of spool or something like that. And when it comes to you, it's filled with nitrogen and capped on both ends. Just braised on plugs, basically?

Kipp Bradford - 25:22 - No, just plastic caps actually.

Spencer Wright - 25:23 - Oh, interesting. Okay.

Kipp Bradford - 25:25 - There are some parts like a filter dryer, which typically will be copper caps on both ends that you have to cut off. And one of the tricky things is that once you have the system open to atmosphere, there's a very, very short period of time to get it all braised up before the moisture levels can become problematic. So, some people in the industry say, “oh yeah, you can leave a system open for a day.” I don't want any of these systems to come back as failures. So I try to get from the moment I start cutting open a filter dryers taking the seal plugs off the compressor. Once I started doing that, I want to have the system fully braised and nitrogen purged and pressure tested within half an hour.

Spencer Wright - 26:16 - Gotcha. Okay. Wild. Okay, cool. So that’s how a refrigerator gets built. So one question I have is how would this be different if you had hired a contract manufacturer? Would it have been a) possible and b) that iterative process that you’re talking about? Like learning, doing it yourself and being very hands-on about it? To me, that’s something I’m very passionate about and I wonder are there times when you look at what you’re doing and you’re just like, I can’t justify it? Like I love braising or whatever but it doesn’t make sense anymore.

Kipp Bradford - 27:00 - Yeah. If I look at my per hour consulting rates and then look at what I'm charging for these systems, there's a significant amount of investment made and that investment, I have to look at it and say, does this really make sense as a business? Can I turn a enough revenue and enough profit on the product? A lot of people look at their profit and they say, “oh, it's just the cost of goods minus how much whatever I can sell this for” or the whatever “I can sell it for minus the cost of goods.” And it sounds so obvious, but so many people make the mistake of not factoring in, not just the labor time, but all of the overhead like, “oh, you have to pay rent” and that costs money and you have to accomodate that in the cost of the product you're selling to the cost of R and D.

So I spent six, seven months refining the product to get to the point where it's at and sold some in that process. But really, the cost that I look at as the final cost of the product has to accommodate all that R and D time. And it really is R and D time, even if you're selling stuff in the process. Like, well, this is one rev 15 now. And that has cost time and time is money.

So making sure that the product can accommodate that because ultimately once I get to the point where I can hire someone in-house to take some of this work on, I have to actually not on paper account for the cost, but they have to get paid and if they're involved in that R and D process getting from Rev 15 to 25, well, their salary is getting paid for by the retail cost of the product, including the cost of goods. So it's important to accommodate that.

As far as contract manufacturing goes, I had spent a number of years looking for contract manufacturing and talked with people in the industry who said, “oh, you know, you could get those made at factories in Mexico. You can get them made in factories in China.” There's a whole bunch of issues with that. One is that manufacturing in China requires sending a shipping container back to the U.S. and it's hard to do low volume, high margin products when it's like, oh, if I sell 25 of them, I'm good at my end, but I need 500 to fill a shipping container. It's a lot of money to have locked up in a single shipping container and at that point, you have to start doing things like getting your shipping container insured, not just for the cost of goods, but for the overall cost of the investment for the sunk costs, for the opportunity costs. Because if that shipping container gets damaged or disappears, falls off the side of the ship, takes too long to get here and you've got commitments to customers, that’s a lot of financial risk.

So working in Mexico seemed more appealing, but then I found out most of these companies won't deal with someone who's making less than tens of thousands of units and can write a multimillion dollar purchase order and put 50 percent down because I'm a new customer. And so ultimately after four or five years of searching and talking to potential contract manufacturers, there was no path forward and I just had to build it myself.

Spencer Wright - 30:29 - I think there's this tendency among people, including myself who have like some experience in electronics and who, you think of contract manufacturer, you think maybe not Foxconn but someone that looks kind of like Foxconn or does Foxconn like things. What about, on the other hand, thinking of it more like a general contractor? Like a contract manufacturer is just somebody who is in Rhode Island or here or wherever, who has the ability to manufacture a thing or to learn how to manufacture things? Very different model, obviously, it's not somebody who is already making refrigerators. Do you think that would ever be an option for you?

Kipp Bradford - 31:14 - That might be an option at some point. I've explored contract manufacturing in a number of different levels. There's a great company in China called AQS, which Bunny Wang who does a bunch of really cool computer projects, he has used them. A number of my colleagues at MIT or former colleagues at MIT, work with them and I actually did a research project with them looking at the cost of manufacturing in China versus the cost in the U.S. Something like this would be a great project for a company like AQS if I had the capital of pay them, the time to deal with their learning curve, and the patience to deal with the failures upfront. So AQS, it would take more effort because it's an unfamiliar set of technologies for them. And they could certainly find, as a general contractor, they could find the subcontractors who have the skills, but then the question becomes, what am I paying for?

And at the early stages, do I have enough confidence in the market and the revenue stream to be able to write a large enough check for them to make it happen. You know, $50,000, $100,000. It really becomes something where AQS would be a company that I'd have more trust in, but that's still a big check to write coming from my retirement accounts or what's left of it. And just sitting back and doing the math, it makes a lot more sense at the early stages for me to start manufacturing in-house, look for potential partners who are closer in Rhode Island, in New England, who can perform some of the duties and some of the functions.

Ultimately, I would love to get subassemblies made at contract manufacturers wherever they are. It's great if they're local. I had a fun experience with some electronics that I had manufactured in Rhode Island and when I got the shipment the couple of days before they needed to get out to their customer, the end customer, it turned out that a pair of components had been rotated 90 degrees in the assembly process, a resistor and capacitor. It turns out their footprint made a square, which was a design mistake. And even though they were labeled properly, when the cam operator was running the file to generate the pick-and-place data, he didn't pay close enough attention to the labels and rotate them 90 degrees. So I got these boards back and 600 circuit boards with a large purchase order from Google, I would have been in big trouble if it didn’t ship. Of the 600 boards, not a single one worked, and I looked at them and said “oh, crap.”

Well, the great thing was I drove 15 minutes back down to the contract manufacturer and said, “none of these work, these components are rotated 90 degrees.” And they said to me, “go have some lunch and come back when you're done eating and we'll have it fixed.” And lo and behold, I took three hours, drove, had lunch, came back and they had a box waiting for me with 600 products with 1200 components that had been lifted off, rotated 90 degrees and replaced. Everything worked. And if that had been stuff that I'd gotten shipped in from China, I'd probably be in jail right now for contract fraud or some Google hitman would've come and—you know, it would have been bad.

Spencer Wright - 34:57 - Turned off your search.

Kipp Bradford - 35:04 - All your Gmail belongs to us.

Spencer Wright - 35:12 - Yeah. And it's funny, because there is a possible version of the world where you could purchase those parts from China, they’d end up being screwed up for just a silly reason, and they would show up here, and even though you bought them from somewhere else, you could still call the shop and say, “hey, can you fix this for me?” But what people don't realize is—it reminds me of, in the bike industry, there’s this new wave of Internet bikes, right? You can buy a bike online, it shows up in a box, and you can put it together.

Kipp Bradford - 35:38 - Canyon, for example.

Spencer Wright - 35:39 - Are they internet? I hadn’t realized that. Can’t you purchase them in the store?

Kipp Bradford - 35:40 - I don’t know if you can purchase them in a store. I thought they were all e-tail.

Spencer Wright - 35:44 - I was thinking more of the low-end stuff. The bikesdirect.com or something like that. And what inevitably happens is somebody buys that bike. They have no idea how to assemble a bike. Right? And so they go to a bike shop and ask them to fix it and having worked in a bike shop and having been there when this happens, it is the most offensive thing that could possibly happen to have someone say, you know, I wasn't willing to pay for your time when I was making the purchase decision, but now something's screwed up. Can you please fix it for me?

And that same thing kind of goes for manufacturing at this level as well, where the relatively small difference in price from buying it in Rhode Island versus buying in China, or maybe even a larger difference in price, but to maintain that relationship is huge.

Kipp Bradford - 36:35 - It is. And you know, people confuse cost of goods with value. And time and time again, I've seen projects and have been involved with some of myself where I get a quote back from a company in China and “wow, this is really inexpensive.” And I look and see what the quote is from the company in the U.S. Go with the company in China and something goes wrong. And there's no real effect of recourse beyond getting on an airplane, hiring a translator, spending several nights in a hotel, and having them fix it.

I had a battery vendor in China that was selling me lithium batteries and I got a shipment of batteries that were all dead, wouldn't take a charge. I dunno what crappy bin they took them from, threw them in a box, and shipped them to me. They were also shipped, not labeled like whole bunch of safety issues.

I had a colleague who spoke Mandarin and actually got on the phone with these people and harassed them until they shipped me another box. And they basically changed the phone number after that because—literally changed a phone number because we couldn't get in touch with them after this. They shipped me a box of dead and broken batteries that were all torn open. And it's like, “oh great, now I have a box full of toxic waste.” So instead of resolving the problem, it gave me something that costs several hundred dollars to dispose of properly. It's like, Oh, who do I? Do I go to customs officials and tell them? And they're just like, go away. We actually have real problems to deal with it.

Spencer Wright - 38:14 - Yeah. So how do you manage your overseas vendors now? What's that? You said you had like a half dozen countries there you're talking about. It’s complex.

Kipp Bradford - 38:22 - Yeah, it's complex. It's complex and a lot of it's just longterm relationships. Some of these vendors I picked up through friends' companies that had long trusted relationships with them. So I was willing to try it out and in some cases, there just were no U.S. suppliers so I had to go overseas and just write a check and cross my fingers and hope that stuff came back.

Some of it comes from going to the trade shows, seeing them in person, and being able to sit down with them and say, “we're going to do this deal and there's an opportunity here and the consequences are if you screw me over, I have a deep network of people in this industry and they'll find out about it if we work well together. That deep network becomes your network.”

It’s kind of like, “hey, you know, here's an opportunity to work together and also expand our relationships if things go really well and we'll try to just make sure things stay on the positive front.”

Spencer Wright - 39:32 - I'm curious, have you had similar kinds of experiences in the U.S.? Like what? People don't think of the risk factors in buying from a U.S. manufacturer as much. They think of the cost, but not really at risk as much. Have you had similar experience or different kinds of experiences?

Kipp Bradford - 39:49 - I tend to have good experiences with U.S. manufacturers. I'm just trying to rack my mind to think if I have had any undesirable experiences that I have not been able to resolve and I can't think of any. For the most part, the language barriers and geographic barriers between the U.S. and China have made those relationships, I tend to trend more cautiously with them and made them a little more difficult. But in the U.S., the appeal of being able to drive to the facility has made things easier. I know I've plenty of friends who've had issues with U.S. manufacturers as well. But again, a lot of them—our legal system is more transparent. There’s language barrier there. There are geographic advantages. There’s network advantages. The manufacturer in China might not care at all if I have a great network and I will spread the word through that network that they're terrible to work with. U.S. suppliers definitely care more about that.

Spencer Wright - 40:52 - Yeah. Yeah. I think I kind of want to push back on this narrative a little bit because I've generally had good relationships with my U.S. manufacturers, but I also have had, I’ve been on phone calls where like non PG-13 words were used. And yeah, most of those have gotten resolved in some way, but they’ve also in some cases, kind of hurt more. And there are these cultural differences that can, in surprising ways, transcend language similarity, right? Like you can speak the same language but just be from a different place and not really have the same value system, I guess.

Kipp Bradford - 41:41 - Yeah, absolutely. And frankly in China, I think because there's so many more companies doing the same thing, a particular company is going to be more hungry for the opportunity to do something new with whoever, whether it's an American, a potential customer, or a Chinese customer or from wherever.

So if there are 10 companies that do, say flexible circuit boards, being able to go and say, “Hey, I'm trying to do this funky thing, it's not an off the shelf part.” They will definitely jump more than I've found U.S. companies will. Because it's like, “oh I've got 20 competitors, all doing the same thing and we're all in a three block radius and if I can differentiate myself through this project working with you, Kipp Bradford here at MIT or in Rhode Island or whatever, this is a good opportunity for me to not just distinguish myself, but establish a new area of expertise so that I can then sell to other places.” And I think that's something where it is occasionally easier to find vendors willing to do small production runs or try something funky they've never done before.

Spencer Wright - 42:54 - It's hustle basically.

Kipp Bradford - 42:56 - It is, it is absolutely hustle. It is absolutely hustle and it's something where building these relationships can be really useful because they support you and then you have an opportunity to take advantage of scale—production at different scales. They can make 100 of something for you and then have the capability of doing 100,000 and are willing to do the 100 because of not just the potential for doing the 100,000 but what they can showcase. And that's part of the relationship building—being able to give them the opportunity to showcase the thing that you've done with them to a broader audience as a selling point for their skills.

Spencer Wright - 43:37 - Yeah. Yeah. So you are effectively a one man shop now? It's you who is doing the procurement and the bending and the braising and so on and so forth?

Kipp Bradford - 43:48 - Yes, with some help now and then. But yeah, probably, the majority, the vast majority, maybe 75-90% of the work is me. I'm actually in my garage because I have an office in an old mill building that does not allow me to use open flames. I'm not sure what the origin was. It's probably a textile mill because it's an old mill in Rhode Island, a beautiful building, large beams made of dead trees. It's awesome.

So part of the business where everything's stored, where the conference room is, the showcase of products, a lot of testing is at the mill building, and half mile away at my garage, I do welding and brazing, cutting—all the dirty stuff.

Spencer Wright - 44:42 - A question about the welding and braising and stuff. I remember when I first got an acetyl solid acetylene cylinder in my house and having that really scare me and then years later, brushing it off and I actually still have acetylene tanks in my parent's garage and I haven't used them in years. How industrial is this garage of yours?

Kipp Bradford - 45:11 - It’s pretty much dedicated to making specialized HVAC products, refrigeration, air conditioning technologies. So I've got two tanks of nitrogen, oxygen, acetylene and a couple fire extinguishers. I try to keep very stringent industrial safety practices, partly because the garage is attached to my house and I go way beyond what you'd normally see in an eight track shop because even the threat of a risk is just unconscionable, unbearable, and irresponsible. All the tanks are always shut off. There's a CO2 and smoke and fire detectors and three fire extinguishers which have, to this point, never had to be used because I also braise on a steel table with nothing flammable within 10 feet. So it's overkill, but it's just the smart thing to do. I don't have to worry so much about it because it's just good industrial hygiene.

Spencer Wright - 46:23 - Yeah. Yeah, totally. Does that affect the way that you think about—like, I think a lot about zoning rules and like how in the U.S., we have tended to keep all of the stuff that's even slightly gross or dangerous well away from our homes. And yet I like having it around me somewhat. How do you navigate that?

Kipp Bradford - 46:47 - I'm a fan of all the zoning rules, because I do think that there's a place for certain processes and also scales. So I do things on a small enough scale that I have one tank of refrigerant, two tanks of nitrogen, and a very, very small oxy acetylene set up so that if I braise for three weeks, I have to go and replace my tanks. So I can fall within residential zoning, residential insurance laws. If you have a tank of like a one gallon gasoline tank for a lawnmower in your garage, that is significantly more hazardous than all of the stuff that I have.

And I guarantee that most people with gas for the lawnmower don't have fire extinguishers and smoke alarms and fire alarms. They're making sure that if that gas spills and ignites, they know within a second. I do believe that there's a place for those industrial or zoning protections to make sure that people don't abuse the privilege.

And if I hit a scale where I need to have bigger drums of refrigerant and larger oxy welding, oxy acetylene welding rigs, I would rent out a space where I can do that work and do it safely and have everything properly ventilated. My garage is ventilated and I can also just open the garage door. But I have a welding fume extractor that's fairly expensive because I also value my own health and lungs.

There are a lot of things that people can do in their houses like soldering, little wood shops, little CNC machines, and those are all great. I think starting to use industrial chemicals that might be hazardous or flammable, then you should ask yourself—do I really want to do this in my house? Or should I find a space where I can do this safely out of my house?

Spencer Wright - 48:52 - Yeah. Yeah. How do you like being a one man shop now? Like how does that feel?

Kipp Bradford - 49:00 - It is of necessity. It's not the way I would like to operate, partly because it gets lonely. Partly because it's not where I can add the most value. I can do a lot of great design work, I can do the thermodynamics of a mechanical system pretty quickly. I can do CAD and solid works really quickly. So to try to split my time between doing the business and marketing side, the procurement, the design and fabrication starts to be overwhelming and exhausting.

So I would love to be at a point where I could hire some designers and hire some HVAC technicians and have a business development person. It takes some time to get there. My biggest problem businesswise has been anytime that I've just started to get momentum to sell a line of products and I've got customers who are interested, I keep getting hired to faculty positions. I'm just about to get this product out and then Yale or MIT or Brown and it's like, “ah, this is great. Except I was, I was like on the cusp of selling something awesome.” Doing a Kickstarter campaign and everyone's going to love it.

Spencer Wright - 50:19 - How do you like working in academia?

Kipp Bradford - 50:23 - MIT Media Lab was fantastic because it's a place where the balance of scientific research for me and industrialization and commercialization were finely tuned. I could spend some time doing research, I could spend some time trying to get that research into the world as a physical product and it pushed all the buttons, maybe a little too well because I worked 5,000 hours and that’s not entirely healthy, but it was so much fun. Yeah, the Media Lab is a fantastic place and I really loved that environment. That's a very special part of academia though. It's unusual. When I was faculty at Brown, it didn't quite push the kind of “I want this stuff to have impact on the world” buttons. It definitely pushed the “I’ve got great, super smart colleagues” buttons. I’m interacting with people who are thinking about big questions and that’s a lot of fun, but it was hard to have that and also say, “okay, this is great research. Let's go and turn it into a product and then have it change the world.” That was something that I definitely experienced that MIT and so that kind of restored my confidence in academics.

Brown has lots of great things going for it, but it was very much a research focused institution and the research was really theoretical so it wasn't the right place for me, being interested in, yeah, doing some theoretical research, but also turning that research into stuff that's I can put my hands and I can give to somebody.

There was a motto not super formalized at the Media Lab, but it used to be “demo or die,” you know, “demonstrate or die,” and then became “deploy or die.” And the deploy part is really important because it means that the Media Lab is special. It's not another place in academia where people are doing research and they write a publication for science and nature and then they move onto the next thing.

It's like we care about science and nature publications, but we also want to see this work transform society and so that really did it for me. It’s like I get to do research and I get to transform society. Awesome.

Spencer Wright - 52:47 - Well, I'm afraid that we are out of time. Kipp, where can people find you? Where can people learn more about what you're doing?

Kipp Bradford - 52:53 - I would say on Twitter, but I will probably be updating my various websites soon. So KippBradford.com, K-I-P-P B-R-A-D-F-O-R-D. I come up in Google searches as the top hit all the time. Like the top 10 pages are the things I'm doing.

Bre Pettis once told me as as a prod, if it's not in the internet, it doesn't exist. Well, 98% percent of my work is not on the Internet and a small portion of that's because I've had clients that I’ve signed NDAs with, but most of it is just I've been so busy building things, I haven't had time to document it and I think a lot of people are familiar with that problem. I'm trying to take a step back and slow down and document and just build a portfolio of the things I've been working on. So I can share it, so I can open source more of the projects. I'll get better at it. I promise. I hope.

Spencer Wright - 53:57 - Well, getting a bump of traffic is always helpful, I find.

Kipp Bradford - 54:00 - Oh no. People are going to be looking at my site. I should probably make it be beyond 2010 projects—

Spencer Wright - 54:13 - Kipp, thank you so much for coming on,

Kipp Bradford - 54:14 - Spencer. Thank you. It's been great being here.

Spencer Wright - 54:18 - For links to the things we talked about in this episode, visit theprepared.org/podcast. As always, thanks the prepared.org supporters for making this show possible. My name is Spencer Wright. See you next week.