Melbourne success story, LIFX, was the perfect case study for the 2017 HardworX tour of Shenzhen. LIFX is the manufacturer of world-first energy-efficient WiFi-enabled LED light bulbs. To date, the company has sold over 2 million lights in 100 countries.
John Bosua, one of LIFX’s founders, arranged for the tour group to visit the LIFX factory. John provided on-the-ground-knowledge––a life-changing experience for the group.
LIFX - the early days
John Bosua’s life changed when his son Phil Bosua came to him one day. Phil was inspired. He had a simple enough idea, but it hadn’t been done yet. He wanted to create a WiFi-enabled light bulb, which could be controlled by a smartphone. That conversation sparked a success story.
The story evolved at the Connected Community Hackerspace in Melbourne, where Andy Gelme joined the project. The team of three worked together to design early-stage prototypes. An initial sample was created, run by an arduino board, which John’s son, Phil Bosua, refined from his garage.
The early results were positive, and in order to fund the project’s further development, they created a promotional video and launched a Kickstarter campaign.
While the founders had modest expectations of raising $100,000, they were convinced that the confluence between smartphones and home devices was perfectly timed. They were right.
The Kickstarter was so successful it was paused after just six days, by which time it had raised $1.3 million. The decision to pause the campaign was crucial. LIFX could have failed under the weight of Kickstarter, with the thousands of people expecting a product that didn’t yet exist. But LIFX was determined to deliver on its promise. And although pausing was risky: it paid off.
The success was a surreal experience and, crucially, it showed their product was a perfect market fit. The Kickstarter interest meant strong market confidence, which translated into LIFX being able to secure investment, and as such, the production of the LIFX light bulbs could begin.
The essential design element
At LIFX, the team wanted to produce the best product possible. With funding secured, the team set about developing a market-ready product. But it wasn’t easy. Initially, there were thermal issues, which required hours of tedious changes––like switching housing, moving components, and continual redesigning––until eventually a solution was found.
While aesthetic design played an essential role in development, the team claimed that the challenge wasn’t just design for manufacture, but design for certification too.
‘Certification is one of your biggest costs,’ said Phil Bosua. Things like FCC, electromagnetic compliance, radiated emissions, conducted emissions––were all essential to consider when it came to design.
Choosing the right factory
To manufacture a high-quality consumer product at volume requires finding the right manufacturing partner who can deliver on both quality and cost targets. The LIFX team decided to start their search for the right factory partner in Shenzhen, China: the global mecca of consumer electronics manufacturing. They networked, visited different factories, and extensively researched their capabilities. A key requirement for LIFX was to find a manufacturing partner who could produce the entire product in-house.
It’s relatively easy to find a factory that says they can do it all in-house––but it may not always be true. Many factories will outsource aspects of the production process. Subcontract outsourcing can be problematic for a number of reasons: quality issues, intellectual property leakage, cost (margin stacking), extended manufacturing schedule, and shipping. Taking the extra time to analyse factories, and find the right fit proved critical.
LIFX located a factory with in-house capabilities in plastic moulding, PCB assembly, final assembly, dye casting, mould diffusers, and crimp fittings. Taking the additional time to find the perfect fit paid off in the long run.
The founder’s decision to find the right factory, with in-house capabilities across all aspects of production, was key in keeping costs down and quality high. LIFX has control over all aspects of the production and can therefore ensure every step is efficient and tested for quality.
The LIFX founders understood the importance of relationship-building in Chinese manufacturing. They didn’t just engage a factory: they pitched the LIFX story. The never-made-before product was exciting to the manufacturers. The story helped to create a mutually beneficial relationship.
Relationship building didn’t stop after the initial contact. Melbourne native, John Bosua, spends the greater part of his time in Shenzhen in order to be fully engaged in the production process. A key part of John’s role is to continue nurturing the relationship with the factory and employees. This nurture makes all the difference. It means that quality issues can be addressed quickly as and when they happen. It accelerates the transfer of new products into manufacturing and allows for feedback from the manufacturing team to be integrated into early prototype development for new products.
Investing in the manufacturing relationship is not to be undervalued––especially when manufacturing a physical product. Executed well, a strong relationship will be mutually beneficial for a company and the manufacturers.
The LIFX factory visit
The 2017 Shenzhen tour group were thrilled to visit the LIFX factory and observe the complete LIFX production process, which includes electronics manufacturing, mechanical manufacturing, and box build, all within the same factory.
For tour participants, the LIFX factory visit afforded the rare opportunity to witness the manufacturing of an entire product from start to finish. The group were privileged to tour the entire facility and have the production process narrated by John Bosua and factory engineers. This immersive experience showed how every aspect of production aligns to produce a final, consumer-grade product.
For many tour participants, the LIFX factory visit was their first experience of how various components come together in the assembly of a product and contextualised the importance of key manufacturing concepts, such as in-process quality inspection.
In touring the LIFX production line, the group observed how solutions to design and manufacturing problems were implemented, as well as, see product iterations for different solution implementations. The group saw how the time and effort that LIFX spent in focusing on design for manufacture resulted in a high-quality, and very popular, product.
Perfecting the manufacturing process
The LIFX team worked tirelessly to perfect the production process making it streamlined and well-run. To produce a consumer-grade product required a few key elements: the right factory, efficient lines, and control over production supply.
‘LIFX worked to get the cost of manufacture down to something that was moving from the enthusiast space into a mass-market product,’ said Simon Holmes A Court, Observant.
Test, test, test
LIFX lightbulbs are produced in a complex factory, with a number of different lines and processes. To yield high-quality products, with an extremely low failure rate, testing is paramount. That’s why LIFX tests rigorously throughout production.
Early-stage testing means that any defects in components and subassemblies are found early, and fixed before a product is assembled. Each assembled light bulb is also rigorously tested
‘Everyone has a quality control sheet in front of them displaying exactly what quality points to look out for,’ said Simon Holmes A Court.
In order to meet certification requirements, LIFX has an array of cages to complete radio frequency testing on-site. LIFX bulbs are also all light uniformity tested to ensure that every product performs in precisely the same way.
‘We have to guarantee that every bulb is the same brightness and same colour. That’s why we test rigorously to ensure an exceptional product,’ said John Bosua.
A fairytale story
While the LIFX product had what John calls a ‘fairytale beginning’, many key decisions by the founders provide learnings. LIFX had the right product at the right time––and the Kickstarter interest proved just that.
By choosing to pause the Kickstarter, the team avoided the possibility of the project failing under its own weight. Other crucial decisions in both design, and production, resulted in the creation of a high quality, consumer-grade product with over 2 million lights sold in 100 countries.
Like any successful project, LIFX also required a great detail of perseverance and optimism––elements the team credit for their success.
Watch the documentary of the LIFX story, and the LIFX factory tour.
HardworX would like to thank all those who made the tour possible, and in particular:
Karl von Möller for his passion and dedication in producing this documentary series. The entire documentary episode list can be viewed here.
All of the factories for welcoming the tour group, spending time, and sharing knowledge. To view a list of the factories visited, click here.
The HardworX Shenzhen Innovation 2017 tour group consisted of tour leader Vela Georgiev, participants Andy Gelme, Brian Gilbert, Jon Oxer, Kemal Ajay, Liam Brennan, Noor Magesh, Sarah Last, Tom Partridge, Simon Holmes a Court, Hans Chang, and Karl von Möller.
Manufacturing cases studies from the HardworX Shenzhen Innovation Tour 2018.
Case study #1: Smartphone manufacturer
The tour group visited smartphone manufacturer, Sprocomm Technologies, where we were able to learn in depth about the manufacturing and testing processes involved in the manufacture of smartphones.
Case study #2: USB cable manufacturer
The tour group visited USB cable manufacturer, Jianghan, where we were able to learn in depth the end to end manufacturing and testing processes involved in the production of USB cables, including over moulding.