The inventive world of Whiteboard Product Solutions in Eden Prairie could make Santa’s elves jealous.
In the production lab, feature-packed strollers, scooters, boats and other one-of-a kind projects dangle from the ceiling like muses inspiring the creative posse below.
It is here where 23 Whiteboard engineers, molders, designers, and researchers have designed and built funky prototypes for clients such as 3M, Toro, Medtronic and scores of other manufacturing clients. Often, the tiny company plays silent partner, helping to jazz up, build or completely revamp clients’ new-product concepts so they are commercially viable.
Customers range from Fortune 500 firms to the crazed lone inventor. In the end, Whiteboard’s prototypes must look professional, be consumer friendly, be easy to manufacture and whack down costs. And it’s important to let a client know “when they’ve drank too much of their own Kool-Aid,” said founder and owner Rick Polk.
With revenue of less than $5 million a year, the small firm carries some big successes despite a recession that caused layoffs and required Polk to cover payroll when business fell. But business is back and employment restored, with Polk adding six workers in the last 12 months. Projects are diverse, and fun, to boot.
There’s the basketball with the tiny built-in pump. There’s the portable drier that clips onto a gym bag to take away the “wet and stink.” There’s also a helmet drier stand. “People say coming here is like visiting Santa’s elves. They say, ‘Wow. I can’t believe you all do all this,’ ” said Paul Pilosi, Whiteboard’s vice president of product development.
Hand sketches, metal and plastic mock-ups and printed computer images of the latest triumph spilled off the desks and onto the floor around designer Eric Polk (the founder’s son) and product development manager Jason Ness during a recent tour of the 23,000-square-foot building.
The duo just finished helping Minneapolis-based Zivix LLC finalize the design of a 15-inch JamStik — a sleek digital guitar small enough to be tossed into a backpack but smart enough to plug into any iPad or computer. Infrared sensors sit just below the guitar strings to detect finger movements. Changeable software settings let the device sound like a guitar or a piano, synthesizer, drums or other instrument.
“It will help a student learn to play or you can just jam with it,” said Eric Polk while strumming a tune as each key stroke lit up on his iPad.
Thanks to Whiteboard, Zivix’s former “ugly” contraption is now cool looking. It won rave reviews at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and will soon be marketed to Apple, Best Buy, and music schools, said Zivix Vice President Chad Koehler.
“Everybody is just very excited about this,” he said, adding that he hopes to sell 100,000 units in the first 12 months.
With an arsenal of designers plus 3-D printers, computerized routers, thermo-foam molding machines and plastic injection molders, “We do hundreds of projects a year,” said Rick Polk, who started in business designing toys in the basement of his Minnetonka home in 1986 for the likes of Tonka, Fisher-Price and others.
Today, the creative genius who rebuilt a dilapidated 1973 Porsche into a racing car with a cow motif tackles anything from bird cages to surgical equipment. “Because we do so many projects, we have a better perspective of what is required to have a product commercialized,” Polk said.
From fenders to foamy soap
His team designed industry firsts, such as the removable fenders for Arctic Cat’s ATVs. The team crafted some of the first foamy-soap dispensers for Ecolab and drafted five different renderings of Toro’s tight-turning rider mower.
Those drawings gave Toro’s concept machine sharper angles, a masculine look and prominently showcased a variable-speed feature that Toro wasn’t sure if or how to communicate to consumers, said Scott Wozniak, Toro’s director of dealer sales for residential and contractor lawn mowers. In the end, Whiteboard’s drawings placed the control knob front and center — right behind the rider’s knees. Toro chose that model.
Whiteboard “allows companies to expand the thinking around a concept ... and draw in new ideas. You need that,” Wozniak said.
Whiteboard converted its early toy-making skills into smart consumer products, and even lifesaving devices. Today, medical devices make up a chunk of business and include the blood centrifuge machine it designed with Medtronic; the embolism control product it worked on for Possis Medical; and a finger-pulse and oxygen meter it redesigned for Nonin Medical.
Gary Hansen, 3M’s new-product discovery manager for Infection Prevention, said, “I would not hesitate to work with [Whiteboard] again.” Hansen was the R&D director of what is now 3M Arizant Healthcare when he sought Polk’s help.
The guts of Arizant’s waterless blood-warming system for trauma emergencies worked. But engineers had little idea how to encase them into a snazzy, professional-looking medical device. “So, we brought this [project] to them because they had a better competency in the practical aspects of making a device,” Hansen said.
Whiteboard transformed Arizant’s sketches into 3-D models and then designed a handsome housing to neatly contain the mechanical guts that can warm 70 liters of blood per hour.
Arizant liked Whiteboard’s prototype. Hansen said 3M is launching the new “Rapid Ranger Flow Warmer System” in June.