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How to Light a Prototype on Fire

Engineering the New Spark Tap™ With Lead Mechanical Engineer Alan McAllister

One day last year, Alan was at his home office desk. Suddenly, the stench of burning plastic filled the room. He looked down at his 3D printer, which was diligently working away on a new product prototype. Smoke was pouring out of the machine. Then the 3D printer burst into flame!

So begins any engineering project worth pursuing.

The origin story of the exciting new Spark Tap™ is a tale with many twists and turns.

It all began by listening to thousands of our customers. SnowShoe’s most successful product to date is the Spark Stamp™, a handheld digital check-in device that replaces the paper stamp card at small retailers. Multiple studies show that customers don’t like to carry paper cards around in their wallets, and that most paper stamp cards get lost or left at home and don’t get used. The Spark Stamp solution eliminated the need for customers to carry a physical item in order to earn credit for their purchases.

The Spark Stamp created a satisfying check-in experience, a reduction in paper use, and added value for businesses who needed data about their in-person transactions. Spark™ solutions are now used with great success: businesses worldwide have used the Spark Stamp for over 25 million check-ins (and counting!). We made loyalty simple and secure!

Yet requests for a SnowShoe mounted check-in solution had trickled in. Retailers didn’t want their employees to hold a Stamp or to be interrupted every few minutes with taps on the shoulder to stamp a customer’s phone. When Covid hit the world, that trickle of requests became a deluge — the customer need for a mounted check-in solution was very important. Our partners needed a stand-alone station that customers could use to check-in without human interaction. SnowShoe needed to go hands-free, and as soon as possible.

So Alan’s team got to work on a design.

As the Lead Mechanical Engineer at SnowShoe, Alan McAllister knows that the path to innovation is never smooth. In fact, the SnowShoe team knows that innovation comes with many bumps, and perhaps even some fires along the way. But this process of trial, error, and iteration is what makes it a fun and interesting challenge.

The biggest challenge that the team needed to solve was how to incorporate capacitive technology into a mounted device. Capacitive technology needs an electrical charge in order to function. When you touch your finger to your smartphone, the screen is sensing the charge of your finger. The Spark Stamp™ provides a proprietary pattern that incorporates that capacitive charge — when the Stamp is held in your hand and touched to a mobile screen, the screen is picking up the charge from the hand holding the Stamp. This is how our system doesn’t require a battery or electricity to work.

So if the check-in device was not going to be handheld, then our Spark system needed another source for a small electrical charge. Alan’s team tested a variety of materials to determine how we could collect that charge without adding the additional burden of adding a battery or plug-in.

Alan’s team began to experiment with a variety of materials for our stand-alone check-in device. We thought it might be possible to make Spark™ check-in devices with a proprietary type of carbon-based conductive plastic (yes, some plastics can conduct electricity!).

Yet some of the carbon-based plastics used by Alan’s team can also collect water… so when this early prototyping material was fed into our 3D printing prototype machine, the combination of heat, water and pressure led to ignition instead of product creation.

And this is how 3D printer fires get started.

But this failure didn’t stop the SnowShoe team. The team printed hundreds of prototypes, tested dozens of scenarios. In the end, we deeply vetted 15 final design options. Our team found success with the simple block form of the new Spark Tap™, which has now moved into full production. We’re excited to announce that the Spark Tap™ is now available to all retailers and businesses worldwide.

If there’s one thing we enjoy more than the innovation stage, it’s the point when we get to see our clients benefiting from our solutions.

In the coming months, we’ll be sharing stories of how our clients are using the Spark™ Tap to safely bring back customers and grow their business using valuable transaction data and insights. We’re excited to be on the forefront of the next retail revolution, and we can’t wait to share more exciting news in the months to come.

We also purchased Alan a new 3D printer.

And a pair of new safety gloves.