Some Reflections on 2021 from the FieldKit Team
As we approach the end of another very strange year, we wanted to take a moment to look back over 2021 and reflect on the challenges we had, the problems we’ve solved, and how we’re poised to take on the year to come.
THE SUPPLY CHAIN CRISIS CONTINUES
2021 was not terribly kind to hardware companies, but after 2020, we became, well, somewhat used to it. The supply chain shortages that everyone has heard about affecting everything from shipping containers to pickles continued to hit FieldKit pretty hard, with the global semiconductor crisis making it difficult to build the hardware that goes into a FieldKit station. We have managed to build sporadic batches of hardware without any alterations, but as Bradley, our hardware designer, put it, “our first rounds of redesign-for-availability are underway, and it seems unlikely that they’ll be our last. This is when it helps to be nimble; we can pivot a lot faster than, say, Ford.” Any time you’re dealing with sensitivity high enough to dust off the Nanoampere unit and you’re developing new designs when it’s a victory to even get parts to build the hardware you already make, you’re in for quite a ride. Speaking of new designs…
REDESIGNING OUR WATER MODULES
This year challenged both our creativity and our persistence, as our water modules had to be reworked entirely. We had started the year out with robust testing to get a sense of the accuracy of our products and soon found that something was a bit unreliable with an OEM circuit we had been using up to this point. After quickly learning that this third-party component was not something we could work with even with some tweaking, we knew that we had to rebuild our water modules from scratch. It took the better part of the year to work out the kinks and land on the final design (including at least one complete return to the drawing board), but as we come to the end of 2021, we now have the new modules in production and look forward to offering the new, improved, and exceedingly accurate FieldKit Water early in 2022.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE (OF TESTING PROTOCOLS)
It’s not possible (or efficient) for our team to build everything from scratch, and the experience we had with the OEM circuits just underlined the need to ensure that everything we were selling met our standards. With this in mind, our instrumentation specialist, Pete, not only built extensive calibration protocols for each of our sensors, but also processes for the equipment used with the station like probes, cables, gaskets, and more. This work on his part led to the development of our mascot for the year, Mr. Bendy, whose graceful undulations you can see on our Instagram account here.
NOT JUST A HARDWARE COMPANY
In addition to building stations, FieldKit also produces software—a mobile application, our data interface (the Portal), and, naturally, the station firmware. The supply chain issues and faulty components that slowed down our hardware efforts may not have had an impact on the software side of the company, but we still had plenty of bugs to work through. Our understanding of the finicky relationship between our electroconductivity sensor and the station firmware continues to evolve in QA testing, and for some reason certain iPhones still seem to really hate our app. Still, we released quite a few improvements to the portal this year, made strides in user experience more generally, and are generally optimistic about what 2022 will bring in the realm of FieldKit’s software side.
OUR TEAM EVOLVES
With our team being as small and scrappy as it is, we’ve had to quickly develop new skills and learn to adapt as the various challenges of 2021 hit us. For example, in order to truly perform quality assurance testing, we can’t just look to see that the sensor is spitting out a number and mark it as a success. We also must confirm that the numbers we see are accurate for whatever it is we’re measuring (pH, dissolved oxygen, wind speed). Our QA tester, Sara, underwent what she called “a Spruce Goose-sized crash course in chemistry, electrical engineering, physics, and environmental data analysis” in order to ensure that the products we were selling indeed met our rigorous standards. Each and every one of our team members has had at least one (if not twenty!) of these moments over the past year, and we can confidently say that we’ve never been stronger.
FULFILLMENT IN THE TIME OF COVID
Naturally, all of the many issues affecting our ability to produce reliable hardware prevented us from getting a lot of our stations to customers, which was a huge disappointment. We were able to get some orders out the door over the course of 2021, but, sadly, it was far less than we had been planning on shipping at the beginning of the year. However, we also took strides in preparing the company to ship internationally, hired new personnel to help with the fulfillment process in 2022, and learned a lot about how to design our operations to ensure our future success. “2021 felt quite tough,” says Ally, our operations manager, “but we did a lot of work that I hope will pay off in the new year in a big way.”
BUILDING COMMUNITY SLOWLY
As so many of our community plans were contingent upon getting stations to people and organizations and then building projects and relationships together, our community-building plans shifted from actively working with new customers and rolling out big partnerships to developing the structures needed to support our community. This includes everything from releasing a 200-page Product Guide to conducting extensive user experience research to working toward making FieldKit software truly multilingual. Finally, 2021 also saw a few of our team members return to Cameroon to continue our work in the Dja Reserve. Even that, however, was affected by unexpected circumstances (in this case a broken foot for one of our key team members preventing travel). But could we really expect anything different in a year like this?
FIELDKIT MOVING FORWARD
Regardless of all the challenges brought by the age of COVID, the FieldKit team has been working hard to continue developing new projects and applications for our open source tool, with an internal development plan that will keep us busy through 2022 and beyond. We are in R&D for an underwater version of FieldKit built for both marine and freshwater applications; these prototypes should start deploying with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute next year. Now that we have our water modules sorted, we are excited to return to developing the prototypes on the workbench, including modules for air quality, soil moisture, turbidity, and more. We have projects in development with partners in academia, NGOs, and educators that will take FieldKit into a myriad of places: the cenotes of Mexico, the neighborhoods of New York City, the coastal areas of the Tropical Eastern Pacific, the rainforests of the Congo Basin, and a few more we hope to announce shortly. Finally, we are putting together quick and useful guides to outline how FieldKit can help with everything from wildfires to agriculture to municipalities to education to the maker movement.
2021 went by way too fast and was a bumpy ride, but we live in interesting times. We remain incredibly grateful for all who have supported FieldKit’s mission, for those who have been patient as we work to build hardware and fulfill orders, and for our truly incredible team that makes even the most difficult problem feel conquerable. Here’s hoping that 2022 will be just as productive and a little *less* interesting.