aircharge - power to the people

aircharge - power to the people

The Company

CMS Industries (CMS) supply office seating and furniture components to UK and European manufacturers. Its latest innovation is a wireless charger for mobile phones and tablets.

The Problem

Historically, CMS worked with external designers to create products, meaning that it didn't own the full intellectual property (IP) on its designs. Owning this would make it a more valuable company. But building an in-house design capability from scratch is a major commitment for an SME.

"Being involved in a KTP enabled us to dip a toe in the water and access the knowledge and skills not just of one talented designer but an entire University."
Barry Grant, CMS

The frantic search for somewhere to charge a fading mobile could soon be a distant memory thanks to aircharge - a wireless, coaster-sized charger that's already appearing in cafes, bars, restaurants and offices around the UK.

It's the exciting result of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) project backed by Innovate UK that brought together CMS Industries (CMS), Oxford Brookes University and a young, creative design graduate.

The outcome was a £165k two-year engineering design project (£93k grant from Innovate UK) that's opened up an entirely new market for CMS and is providing valuable insights for Oxford Brookes researchers.

CMS wanted to grow its business by developing its in-house design capability and approached Oxford Brookes, a well-known centre for engineering and design expertise, about setting up a Knowledge Transfer Partnership.

"We knew having our own in-house design team and owning the full IP for our products would boost the value of the business. But building this sort of capacity is a real stretch for a SME like us with just 24 staff" said Barry Grant, CMS sales director.

About turn into a new market

Glenn le Faou, KTP Associate at CMS Oxford Brookes worked with CMS to recruit Glenn Le Faou, a graduate in Transport Design, as KTP Associate to build in-house design capability and create a range of ‘click-together' chairs. But when his research showed that this concept was commercially flawed, the focus of the project changed.

"We're delighted with the way the project followed market opportunities" 
Shpend Gerguri, Oxford Brookes University

CMS' MD Steven Liquorish spotted a gap in the market for a wireless charger for mobiles and tablets in mid-2013. Glenn had the bright idea of incorporating a charger into office furniture - fitting it into the 80mm circular opening cut into many desks or tables for cabling - and came up with a prototype. CMS took it to a design conference in September 2013 where excellent feedback convinced them they had a product that would sell.

Glenn incorporated the basic charger technology into a series of designs for use in cafes and restaurants as well as offices - broadening the potential market. CMS launched aircharge in March 2014. Only six months later it's sold over 4,000 units.

The wow factor

"It's definitely got the wow factor, everybody who sees it likes it. We're working with a range of channels and strategic partners to reach new customers and exciting things are happening" Barry commented.

Glenn was involved in everything - from sourcing parts to designing the branding and working on the marketing. Thanks to Oxford Brookes he had access to the latest research on assembly, testing, problem-solving and new materials - as well as access to testing machines and other resources.

"Working with Glenn has been invigorating. His input was vital in developing aircharge so fast. The backing of Oxford Brookes meant we had real confidence in the design input from the experienced people behind him. He and the KTP have performed over and above our expectations" Barry added.

Shpend Gerguri, Senior Lecturer in Engineering Design at Oxford Brookes University is also delighted with the outcome of the KTP.

"We're delighted with the way the project followed market opportunities, and created a product with a real buzz around it. Our engineering knowledge made it possible to deliver some outstanding designs. In the longer term it will leave CMS with a serious design capability for the future," he said.

aircharging ahead

Glenn is expanding the aircharge range. He's designing a wireless receiver that enables Apple mobile phones to use the current model and is working on including ‘Apple-friendly' technology in the next generation of chargers.

Being based at CMS has given Glenn insight into the entire business cycle from project management and finance to understanding customer needs and the complexities of scaling up products for mass production. He likes the challenges of working with a manufacturer.

"I want to create products that people can use in everyday life. Seeing aircharge develop from concept to a product range has been rewarding and it's taught me a lot. I've fast-tracked not just my technical skills but also my time management and insight into commercial pressures" Glenn commented.

KTPs - the power of three

The KTP runs until January 2015. CMS is talking to Glenn about becoming a full time employee and it's embarking on a second KTP (with Reading University) on inductive charging.

Oxford Brookes researchers also benefit. KTPs help them keep abreast of developments in industry, adapt their research, and adjust their teaching to reflect the needs of students wanting to work in the sector.

"I'm feeding our experience of this KTP back into my teaching with a session on IP in product design and its impact on the knowledge-based economy" Shpend Gerguri commented.

"Setting up an in-house design facility is expensive. Being involved in a KTP enabled us to dip a toe in the water and access the knowledge and skills not just of one talented designer but an entire University. It's been fantastic and it's led us to a whole new exciting market" Barry concluded.

aircharge will be keeping visitors and exhibitors powered up and ready to do business at Innovate UK 2014, a unique global two-day event happening on 5-6 November in London - spotlighting the UK's most inventive, creative and innovative companies. 

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