Meet the Maker: Jen Fenner

By Andrew Gregory. Posted

If you’ve got an idea for a world-beating product, but you don’t quite know how to get it off the ground, you’ll need someone to help you out. Someone who can design a PCB for you before it goes to the factory, write software, establish a proof of concept that you can take to investors, or build a prototype that you can use to iron out the creases before you make that first factory run.

That’s exactly what DefProc Engineering, run by Jen and Patrick Fenner, does. This pair work with clients big and small to make one-off and small-run electronics-based products – and they started out in their local makerspace using the same equipment as the rest of their local maker community.

We spoke to co-founder and managing director Jen Fenner to find out what it takes to go from sharing soldering irons to working on government contracts.

“We started our business in 2010. We didn’t have full-time jobs; we had some money to live on, and we just started. We were only 27, so we didn’t know what we were doing, but we started it in my mum and dad’s spare room.

"We initially had this idea to design a human-powered vehicle – they were all the rage at the time, but there wasn’t a really good, affordable version. So we had this big idea that we were going to produce a human-powered vehicle and design this kit, and we worked on that for about a year or so.

“We found that when it came to building our first prototype, none of the manufacturers would talk to us. They either didn’t get back to us with a quote, or the one that did get back to us took eleven weeks to get the quote, and it was astronomically expensive. So, we decided to scale back.

"We found DoES Liverpool, which had started the year before. Pat went and learned how to use a laser cutter, how to design for laser cutting, how to design for 3D printing, all sorts of little electronic bits. Somebody offered him a piece of work – they asked him about a device they were trying to make, but didn’t know how to get started making it. They had the idea, but they just were having difficulty executing it.

"He started offering advice to people, and eventually they just asked him: ‘would you be able to make it for us?’. We basically set up a business to make things for people within the makerspace. People would come to us and ask us to make things. That’s how it started.

“Our business has changed over time. We still do fundamentally what we did when we were there; we just do it for slightly higher-paying clients, and we’ve got our own equipment now. The shared equipment is good, but you want your own professional tools. We’ve got quite high-end soldering irons now, whereas the space we were in, it was good at the start, having access to all that equipment – I think we actually bought some equipment and put it in the space so everyone could use it. We really loved it there, and we wouldn’t have the business we have now if it wasn’t for us being at DoES Liverpool. They gave us a break.

“One of the things I like is that we still refer people to the makerspace as well. If a potential client comes to us with an idea, we will sometimes say, ‘You don’t want to spend loads and loads of money with us, but if you go to the makerspace, there will be someone there who can support you while you start off.’ It’s a supportive community, and it doesn’t cost very much to join.

CLIENT WORK

“Everything we do is tailored to the client. We don’t particularly invent things. We have one project, Push to Talk, which is our in-house product that we’re developing with Liverpool City Council as part of the Council’s 5G project, and that’s going out to people’s homes.

“Sometimes people will go to other companies with ideas but aren’t able to get exactly what they want; they’ll come to us, and we’re often able to fulfil what that person wants”

“The Environment Agency project that we’re working on is a live level sensor. Because of the way the Environment Agency monitors its rivers, they have a big base station where you can see at that particular point what the level is, but you don’t necessarily know what the water level is like ten miles down the river, because there isn’t any data being gathered until the next base station.

“They wanted us to develop some smaller sensors that they could tap into, through which they could monitor the water levels along the length of rivers. We’ve been using a new technology called NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT ), which is a bit like LoRaWAN signal. We started developing that while we were at DoES, and we’ve done various different versions of it. We’ve also created some bespoke sensor hardware for them, so that they can train their staff on how to use these small devices so that they can get the data they want out of those sensors. We’ve done quite a lot of work with the Environment Agency, including a national training scheme for these devices.

“We’re currently at a staff level of five. We do a lot of stuff for how small we are. This week we’re just finishing off a build for the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. We’re putting together all the interactive side of four lunar landing exhibits. You touch something and then it lights up and plays video, or you put an RFID tag on something and it plays audio into a specific space. We do all the electronic side of that.

“Patrick’s a design engineer; his degree was in automotive engineering and structures, and he’s migrated into this field of electronics. My background is in textile design; I do a lot of the creative design.

"Made Invaders, for example is my design, and then Patrick works on how to make it function. I don’t know much about the electronics, but I do know what they should look like: the design rigour that needs to go into things. We have quite a nice partnership of skills.

Made Invaders is a real, physical version of the classic Space Invaders game.

“We’ve got a product designer now who does all the CAD for us and makes everything look good. It’s nice to have people to support us. When it was just the two of us, Patrick was doing the electronics and the software, and we’ve now got a software engineer and a product engineer as well.

“Gradually, we just built up and built up. We’re doing much bigger projects now, still working with the Environment Agency. We didn’t go to the makerspace to design a product to then start a business out of it; we’ve formed a business within the makerspace, providing a complementary skill to some of the other people that were there. We’ve grown from there over the last five years. It’s been serendipitous.

“A lot of it’s been driven by Patrick and his interest in new problems. One of the things that stands out for us, as a business, is that we’re willing to take a punt with a client. Even if we don’t know how something works, we know that it must be possible. Whereas we know that a lot of businesses, unless it fits into their formula, they won’t be willing to take it on. It comes back to the time when we wanted a prototype – there was no-one who was willing to do a proof of concept, or a prototype. ‘No, we don’t want to make one of something; if you want 10,000, come back.’

“I think our biggest run has been 200 things for a client. If you go to somewhere that’s got the big pick-and-place machines, and ask them to make you 200 of something, they’ll tell you it’s not worth their time to set up the machines to do that. We can manufacture things in small runs that big places just don’t want to do. It’s almost like the bigger the company, the less likely they are to want to deal with you. We try to fill that void.”

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