Jonathan Langton

Tricky Business Decisions for Folding UK Plug

2 Comments

The standard UK electrical plug and socket is considered the safest in the world, however size and configuration of the plug itself make it the target of much criticism.  Min-Kyu Choi and his company, Made in Mind, might have found the solution to that problem.  It is great to see this product finally make it to the market, however it is not necessarily the product that one might have expected, nor the product it should be, nor even the product we really want.  It can be reasoned as to why that might be by considering the nature of the product, however some of the company’s decisions, both technical and commercial, seem not to be in their own best interests.

The arrival on the market of the “Mu”, a folding electrical adaptor was reported by the BBC earlier this year.  Here is the original mobile phone video taken by the BBC correspondent when first discovering the idea as Choi’s design project as a Royal College of Art student.

Here is a video, from the designer, explaining the original concept in more detail.

Now consult the official website for the launched product at https://www.themu.co.uk/.  As it says, make sure to “click and drag” over the image to see how the product works (this little instruction was initially missing from the website, which seemed an oversight on a website of the design company.)

It is immediately obvious that some things have changed.

  • The orientation of the retractable guards have been reversed.
  • There is no option to use the Mu while folded.
  • The cable plug is now just an adaptor.
  • It is limited to USB output.

Reversed guards

One of the potential flaws in the design is that it contains moving parts, which certainly could negatively affect the durability of the plug over time.  Perhaps the British Standard, BS 1362, does not include provisions for the durability of plugs and adaptors, however it should be possible to comply with any such obligations, especially since the earth connection does not move and is the most important from a safety perspective.  However, the revised orientation of the folding guards is likely to improve the durability of the adaptor when not in use, as they the protect the swivel mechanism from accidental damage.

Use while folded

With position of the guards reversed, there is no longer the facility to use the adaptor in a folded configuration, as shown in the designer’s own concept video.  Considering the emphasis on safety of BS 1362, it is unlikely that the use of the plug while folded would be permissible, since it is fundamentally changing the form factor of the plug and socket.  With that in mind, the design change that prevents use in the folded position is a small loss, since that part the original concept probably did not comply with the required standard.

Adaptor only

Perhaps the most disappointing realisation for UK customers for the design is that the final product is now just an adaptor and not a cable plug.  This means that UK consumers may not soon be bidding farewell to the traditional, bulky, 13A plug – despite what was said at the time of winning various design awards.  To be fair, Made In Mind have said that they are working on other products, but it is not difficult to see why this particular route was chosen initially.  Every new electrical product, of course, requires an electrical plug, even those portable gadgets that charge via USB are often supplied with a mains adaptor.  That means that the numbers of these plugs being produced daily is vast and, moreover, the restrictive standard means that they are all almost identical.  This is a true commodity product, that is probably produced for pennies and occupies little space in the consciousness of the designers and manufactures of electrical goods.

Possibly only Apple is really concerned with these details such that they would be prepared to pay more than the cost of cheapest, Chinese-made, moulded plug.  For most manufacturers, and consumers, it not a sufficiently great differentiator to justify the added complexity and cost.  Furthermore, at this point in their evolution, Made in Mind are probably unable to meet the kind of demand of a company like Samsung or Sony.  By selling their innovation as a third-party product direct to consumers, Made In Mind avoid having the buying power of huge manufacturers screwing down their margins.

However, an adaptor only?  Why not a third-party cable?  A great many appliances these days do not have integrated power cables, but, in the interest of regional compatibility, use a standard socket on the appliance and a detachable power cord with the correct local mains plug.  This is especially true of laptop power supplies.  Surely cables with a standard IEC C7 or C13 connection would cover 90% of the appliances, particularly portable appliances.  Expect to see this as the next product in the Made in Mind range.

USB only

The decision to go with a USB adaptor as the first product is clearly targeting the smartphone market.  However, to do that it is necessary to convert 240v 50Hz AC power of up to 13A to just 1 Amp 5V DC.  This requires some kind of circuitry inside the adaptor, something that would not be necessary for a passive cable.  Undoubtedly today such circuitry is cheap and compact, however the Mu is still significantly smaller than a lot of conventional mass-produced, Chinese-made “wall wart” phone chargers.  That said, Made in Mind are not promoting anything technologically advanced inside the Mu, so the circuitry is probably quite standard.  Speaking of the internal components, it is not obvious if the Mu has a user replaceable fuse, as the original design did.  Almost certainly the circuitry inside fulfils that function to some degree, or perhaps a fuse is simply not required on this type of adaptor.

But is this the right product for smartphone users?  Who really needs a more portable charging option?  Of course the smartphone market is huge and growing, but every phone comes with its own cheap, bulky charger that stay connected at home 99% of the time.  Furthermore, for the majority of people, when they are not at home, they are close to computers with USB ports that could charge their phones, unless they are constantly on the move, in which case they cannot plug in their phones to charge anyway.  Who is actually travelling around with their phone charger?  There is an answer coming, but it is likely to be a very small subset of the market.

The other big questions

Why not travel adaptor for non-earthed EU plugs?  From the initial idea, it seems the problem to be addressed was the size of the plug making it awkward to carry around.  The new design excels in being portable, so why not a product targeting those whom portability is a big factor – travellers, especially international travellers, who are constantly battling ever tighter baggage restrictions and so forth.  The variety of plugs available internationally potentially requires several versions for the most common variants, such as US and European.  However most, if not all, would not require any complex circuitry; it is simply matching one set of pins to another.  The slim form factor of the Mu means that it may not be possible accommodate the earth connection for some international plugs, but there are already examples of non-earthed adaptors available on the market.  Today many appliances, and most of those one would travel with, are non-earthed.  For example, the commonly found CEE 7/16 “Europlug” does not feature an earth connection, which would make the corresponding adaptor even simpler.

Why not sales outside of UK?  The Mu is currently only available in the UK, which may not seem like a problem for a UK specific adaptor, however even as it is, the Mu may be as useful to international visitors to the UK as it is to residents.  Clearly portability is the main selling point of the Mu, but few UK residents have a problem with the portability of their chargers.  The “wall wart” provided with the device stays connected at home, while at work there is a USB socket on the computer and it will be possible to access either one or the other virtually every day.  People who are away from home or the office may benefit from the Mu, but for residents who are travelling around within the UK, there is less of an issue with carrying the manufacturer supplied charger or cable.  Such travellers are less likely to be concerned about managing the bulk of the charger and battling luggage allowances.  The Mu is definitely useful for international visitors who need to charge their phones, cameras and other devices in their hotel room and for whom space and weight are an issue.  Perhaps only frequent visitors would make such an investment as the Mu, and perhaps they can buy it while in the UK (if it were available in the shops.)  Made in Mind have said that they plan to address this issue, but they are losing potential sales to what could prove to be an important part of their market.  Their excuse, the difficulty of processing international payments, is just not plausible in the massively connected world of 2012 and with the existence of PayPal, for example.

Not available in shops?  This blog is a big fan of online sales, so Made in Mind are not to be criticised for embracing online sales first.  Selling through the Design Museum shop is certainly a way for them to show their appreciation to those who helped them get started.  Presumably this situation will be rectified over time, as Made in Mind start dealing in greater volume and can negotiate with distributors and stockists.  However, until this happens, and the Mu is available on the High Street, the international customer is going to really struggle to get his hands on the Mu.

Pricing?  The Mu is undoubtedly a nice product and very elegant.  It addresses and solves a dilemma, that many may not have considered, in an innovative fashion.  Is it worth £25?   Some will pay this, simply out of respect for the design, rather than its utility.  Many potential customers, intrigued by the novelty and ingenuity of the Mu, may be turned away at this price if they analyse whether they actually need the product and find it is useful in relatively few, specific instances.  Expect to see this price dropping in the future, once Made in Mind are trading in greater volumes and have streamlined their manufacturing processes.

Conclusion

Made in Mind probably will, and are, selling a few Mus (!).  It definitely has that “Apple-y” feel about it, which will please the designer, until he discovers that it is intended in the sense of “over-priced, beautiful things.”  The novelty will shift quite a few units, even if the customers don’t realise that they don’t really need it.  Licensing the technology widely to manufacturers, such that in the future everything will have a folding plug, doesn’t seem a viable course of action.  It is too complex, unlikely to be price competitive and not really necessary for most applications.  Manufacturers will not support it.

That said, there is a finite range of applications were the folding plug concept really comes into its own, which is basically where one needs carry one’s own means to connect to the mains power.  The Mu, as is, could sit well in an extended range of third-party products; it is just not clear that it is the best first choice.  Perhaps in terms of novelty and universality it is the easiest to market – most people have phones and are accustomed to buying expensive accessories for them.  In terms of the portability of cables, for those affected, the laptop cable is a bigger issue than the phone charger, yet manufacturers continue to provide over-sized, brick-like power supplies, that are just as problematic even if the plug is smaller.  The travel adaptor is not a perfect concept either, due to the large number of foreign configurations possible, earthed and non-earthed, plus that casual travellers and one time visitors will not invest in anything other than the cheapest alternatives.

Hyperbole aside, the folding plug concept of Made in Mind is nice, but it will not replace the traditional 13A plug.  It has certain specific applications and life would be marginally simpler if the cables we had to carry included this innovation.  Made in Mind are best advised to increase their range to include cables and other adaptors, continuing with third-party products and supplying them OEM when requested to build volume and reduce prices.  Although less sexy and high-profile, OEM may prove to the be bigger market for Made in Mind.  Marketing a product to replace something free and functional from the manufacturer is a difficult task.  It is to be hoped that they can make it work and that these products will be commonplace for phones, cameras and laptops in the future.

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2 thoughts on “Tricky Business Decisions for Folding UK Plug

  1. I agree, I have a Mu and although its neat, the lack of slim travel adaptor really lets it down and is a major flaw. So much so I resisted buying it until they had one on the pipeline. The product development of this seems so slow. Its been over a year to get some simple adaptors out and more than that for a mains lead, its now April 2013 and still no further product development appears. Seems the directors rather spend their time going to shows and entrepreneur events rather than getting product developed and selling it off the shelves. Why is it not in the shops by now? Selling product, getting channel outlets and developing new products is entrepreneurship not blogs and BBC interviews and podcasts.

  2. I am sorry but I do not agree. Whilst I am disappointed that there is no straight plug to figure 8 version and seems to be very slow in product development, those of us that spend their lives travelling between home, office and client sites will find this a godsend in terms of space saved in the laptop bag. I am holding off buying until there is a proper plug version and I wait for this intently.

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