Stumbling & getting up

I’ve been shipping Stokemonkey kits slowly in part from inability to go faster, and in part out of caution. I have been very solicitous of my first customers’ experiences installing and using the product. The good news is that no customers want their money back, and most are very pleased overall. Two can fairly be described as ecstatic. The bad news is that about half dislike the controller enclosure enough to have sought alternatives, and a third have had major trouble with the electrical connectors that the enclosure exacerbates.

So I’m not going to ship any more until I fix the problems, unless of course after reading this “full disclosure” you still want one immediately. (Naturally, all customers will get free upgrades to bugfixed product subcomponents as soon as I develop them.)

The gist of the trouble is that the controller, wires, and their connectors are too tight a fit in the enclosure. Closing the enclosure can stress the connectors too much. Some of the connectors themselves lack the physical robustness to tolerate repeated openings and closings, depending on how it’s all wadded together. One connector failed outright, and others have pulled apart in use, leading to various tape-intensive interventions, and involving abandonment of the enclosure altogether in more than one case. Some people just don’t like the look & feel, and I concede that these aspects are inconsistent with the level of development of the system overall, and its price.

This happened because my testing of the enclosure scheme, using prototype materials, wasn’t broad enough to foresee the trouble that receiving slightly different, slightly screwed up production materials would bring. Also, I admit, the electronics enclosure scheme was the element of the system I’ve made the least investment in. Partly this was out of despair of pleasing 90% of people with any one design, and partly out of the simple thrift and haste that impinged on my thinking at the time I decided upon it. There was also a rumor looming of a third-party solution coming soon to market that would render any effort of mine redundant, even conflicting.

Now I know better. I am going to upgrade to the highest quality connectors I can find (Neutrik Neutricon®), shipping them along with assembly tooling to Beijing where the controllers are assembled. I may well travel to Beijing before new stock ships, to assure no bad surprises. I’ll have the same raw stock and tooling here in Portland, to retrofit existing stock and to be prepared to repair or modify the electrical assemblies quickly and well.

I am working with a neighborhood tent and bag fabricator, Beckel Canvas, to create a wedge-shaped bag to replace the current electronics canister. The wedge bag may well have a market beyond my product as an Xtracycle accessory, offering dry storage and physical protection to, e.g., cameras and wired items that don’t always play nicely with celery in the main cargo slings. There’ll be room left over for accessories like voltage converters for running lights, sound systems, butt warmers, goggle wipers and other equipment off the main batteries.

It’s all going to be OK.

5 thoughts on “Stumbling & getting up”

  • Bill Manewal

    First, I’d like to go on record as an ecstatic owner of Stokemonkey. That’s not to say there’s not room for improvements.

    I agree that the connectors are a weak link. After having some Anderson Powerpoles come apart on another bike project, I always run a wrap or two of vinyl electrical tape around the joint. No problems after 1000+ miles with this easy fix. I do the same with the small metal connectors.

    While I AM ecstatic with the Neutricon connectors on the battery, they would seem to take up a lot of space in any controller enclosure, unless they come in smaller sizes. For the lower voltage connections, maybe some automotive snap-together connectors would work well. Seem to work OK on cars and motorcycles.

    I actually have sufficient room in the canister for the controller plus a DC/DC converter. BUT a trick I’ve devised to make everything work well is to NOT screw on the lid of the canister. I simply line it up where I want it (see below) and go around the top edge mashing downward, snapping the threads in place.

    Will this work over 1000 cycles? Probably not, but having taken the canister apart and put it back together around a dozen times while tinkering, I’ve seen no ill effects. And the press-on method completely avoids the stress on wiring arising from twisting the contents against the walls of the canister.

    By pressing the lid in place, I also can line up the key switch with an empty space behind it. (I taped the back of the switch so the (purposeless) metal flange on the front of the controller won’t short out anything.)

    I like the fact that the motor/controller offers two power ranges and, depending on what my workday looks like, I change my selection, since I often push the edge of the range available from the 12Ah battery. Some days, my job requires more of a hurry than I’d like, and the extra power position is nice. Or just when I’m tired or lazy and have enough juice to get me home on the High setting.

    I do NOT like the fact that the switch is buried in the canister. So I drilled a 1″ hole in the lid, fashioned a rain flap out of a fold of gaffers tape, and line the switch up with the hole before pressing the lid in place. This has worked well, but I’d rather have the switch mounted outboard, mabye with a rubber boot over it for rain.

    In the above drawing of the Wedgie, I don’t see room for mounting the power selector switch on the front panel. I vote for more switch accessibility.

    I’m assuming the Wedgie will have some sort of substantial floor (1/4″ ply?) on which the controller be mounted. (There IS a purpose for that front flange!) Otherwise I’d be afraid the corners of the controller would wear away the fabric fairly quickly due to continual movement. I’m amazed (and dismayed) at how fast some of my nursing gear has worn holes in my Ortlieb office bag.

    I’d go a bit further than saying, “It’s all going to be OK.” I’d say it already IS OK and it’s all going to get outstanding, blow-your-socks-off, way rockin’ cool excellent.

  • Todd

    Bill, you are just way too resourceful. You are so hooked on the basic capability that you’d find a way around any impediment I put in your way, and thank me for it! The trick about snapping the lid on — that’s marvelous. I can’t think of a better example of the kinds of things customers — who don’t necessarily have your tinkerer’s zeal and the motivation borne from your successful trial of prototypes — shouldn’t have to resort to!

    The nice battery connectors are from Neutrik, but not the Neutricon line. The latter are compact, low-current, multi-pin connectors suitable for the Hall effect and throttle connections. They lock and have great strain relief and look and feel great. They cost like 100 times what the current almost free connectors cost, so I’m having a hard time convincing my supplier of my sanity. Said supplier usually supplies more budget-minded DIY gaffer-tape types, not those after an elegant, modular, turn-key package like me. In absolute terms the added expense is nothing compared to the cost of a single failed connection or even an impression of flimsiness! Are gold-plated contacts excessive? Probably. Is anything too good for my customers? [mit GefÃ?¼hl!] Nein! In addition to the functionally meaningful aspects of the design are psychological and aesthetic ones, and that’s what these connectors can bring to the package.

    For the 6 motor power connections and the battery, I was leaning toward keeping the Andersons, but assembled into a (recommended) single big block of 8 connectors, the heft of which will prevent unintentional disconnects. Hold on for a second about what happens to the keyswitch.

    The inside top of the wedgie bag has velcro-closed straps attached to the seams, permitting the controller and other things to be suspended, off the bag’s bottom where they’d abrade. The bottom of the bag is more of a spray shield/fender.

    The front of the bag has a zippered access flap, lacking the fanciness indicated in the drawing. KISS principle.

    The controller has a toggle power switch, a power indicator light, and the mode switch on one face, facing the access flap. The other end of the controller has the grommeted wire bundle exiting. The bottom corner of the bag — where the front panel meets the bottom panel — is closed with velcro, not sewn shut. It’s the external wire access point. All the connections are suspended in the void, or cinched up with the items suspended from the inside top.

    There is no keyswitch. There’s only a power toggle switch (and mode switch) behind the zippered access flap, which could be locked. (Not high security, but neither is the keyswitch.)

    I say all of this in the present tense, but in truth the details shift in my head every couple hours. I confess to greatly enjoying this return to design activity, even if it means bad things for my cash flow. Meanwhile, the first sewn prototype should come into being early next week.

  • Andrew Janjigian
    Andrew Janjigian December 2, 2005 at 10:17 pm

    I’m not sure if I am the other Sm customer who could be described as “ecstatic”, but I’d like to be added to that list if not.

    I would, however, like my money back. Not because I have any problems with the Sm, but just because I can always use the extra cash. Actually, you know what, never mind. If I had it, I just spend it on another Sm kit anyway, for my wife’s bike.

    Todd I like where you are going here with the new enclosure. I’d like to think that my complaints and suggestions inspired this particular round of innovation. I’m less picky about access to the switch and connector type, so I’ll defer to Bill (Hi Bill!) on those details.

    My one concern is that the bag be small (or compressable) enough to allow good fender and brake clearance. There were two reasons I ditched the original controller for a small dry bag cinched in the same place, but snug against the snapdeck. One was visibility. I figure that the fewer visible interesting looking/removable parts on the bike the better, to discourage vandals and thieves. The bright red motor is visible enough, thank you very much. My bag setup is completely hidden beneath the snapdeck, and a pain to extract even if you knew it was there.

    The other reason the first controller wasn’t as good, was that when I pushed as far back into the space as I wanted it, it compressed the fender into my rear tire. The new bag needs to account for variations on fender positioning, which in my experience, is not as adjustable on the FR as on other bikes.

    I look forward to seeing the prototype and the new design when ready. That enclosure will be a great place to stick the new 100Ah 36v 1# compact battery, when it becomes available. ; )

  • Bill Manewal

    Getting rid of the key. Having easy zippered access to the mode switch. Suspending the controller from above. I LIKE IT!

    And as Andrew points out (Hi Andrew!), hiding the vulnerable pieces is a good thing. Nature seems to do it that way and it turned out reasonably successful for the last 100 million years. Maybe the zipper handle on the Wedgie should have a small tag that says, “Driver Carries No Cash.”

    I solved the fender-crushing aspect by just mounting the jar a little further forward that I would like for visibility reasons. But I have no doubt that the wedge shape will handily solve this issue. The round jar was in fact just exactly the wrong shape.

    If we were to relax paranoia for a moment, the vertical dimension of the front panel could be quite large, with the resulting triangle taking up the whole space between deck and the Xtracycle frame member and fender. On my bike it measures over 10″. Might be nice for additional waterproof storage. Or maybe you’ve already designed it that way.

  • Todd

    Your disc-brake-equipped bike, Bill, doesn’t need space left above the Xtracycle frame for linear-pull brakes. The current plan is for the front to be 6″ square, and the top part 9″ deep. We’ll make sure it doesn’t hit a 700c 38mm tire. About theft or vandalism, my feeling is that the latter is just about impossible to curb through design, while the former is less of a concern because, at this stage, isolated SM components have sub-minimal resale value. The whole bike is a different story, but recharging it will be a challenge, huh? “Psst, can I hook you up with an unmarked black metal box with some wires hanging off it? Only a dollar!”

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