Usually it’s thrown over your shoulder as you lead your crew to the dock, or it’s tucked in the crook of your arm as you wedge into the cockpit of a Four. The weight of it is reassuring. Your CoxBox® isn’t just a battery and amp for your calls. It isn’t just the colors of your crew displayed in rubber bumpers. It’s more than that; it’s much more than that. It’s that critical link between you and your crew, the resonance of your voice, the boom or whisper carried along wires to even your farthest rower.
To see how the CoxBox is made, we visited the Nielsen-Kellerman manufacturing plant that’s nestled in a technology park just south of Philadelphia. Alix James, the CEO of the company, stands like a rower: tall and active. As we toured her plant, I felt like I was in a coach’s launch, and she was explaining how the perfect boat would flow and work toward the most speed. Something about the production plant that makes the CoxBox felt incredibly similar to the design of a very fast crew working toward success.
In the plant, we found more than rubber bumpers and microphones. We found 90 people who come to work to make some of the most refined measuring and amplification equipment in the world. NK Rowing & Sports electronics, Kestrel Weather Instruments, Kestrel Ballistics (long-range sniper instrumentation) and Blue Ocean Rugged Megaphones; all of these are made by the company that is the largest producer of coxing voice technology in the world.
Nielsen-Kellerman was founded in 1978 when James’ step-father, Richard Kellerman (a chemist) and Paul Nielsen (a physicist) were working on copier technology at Xerox in upstate New York. “Richard and Paul were entrepreneurs looking for a product,” James begins the history. “Ted Nash was a family friend, and it all started when we went to a regatta with him. Every coxswain who was at an elite level had a mechanical stroke watch taped to one leg and a sweep-hand stopwatch taped to the other, all while carrying a cardboard megaphone. It was a bit much to handle. A Penn rower [Nash coached at the University of Pennsylvania from 1969 to 1983] had a rudimentary cox box in a metal construction lunchbox and Ted asked Paul if he would work on it. That turned into, ‘We can make you something better.’” From that, the CoxBox was born in the Kellerman basement.
“In the beginning, there were so many fundamental things to figure out. Rechargeable batteries, how to make it waterproof. The first year we sold a hundred CoxBoxes. We would actually hand paint the colors of the school on each can. The electronics were through-hole technology, where we had to thread the legs through the holes on the board and hand-solder them. You’ll see how we do it now, as surface-mount technology, where a computer places everything on the board and a big oven bakes it.
“We created the CoxBox first, then the StrokeCoach. Right around the same time, there were two other guys, Dick and Peter Dreissigacker. The first Concept2 indoor rower monitor was a bicycle-type odometer. I don’t know who contacted whom, but Paul Nielsen developed a way of measuring the run-down on the erg’s wheel and using it to calibrate the erg so it could be compared to the power needed to row a Four. We designed the first Performance Monitor and made thousands of them for Concept2. That was a big source of growth for this company. That relationship is what took this company out of the basement.”
James went to Yale and, even though she had no intention of rowing, rowed throughout her college career. She still rows, spending time on the Schuylkill River, rowing for Vesper Boat Club.
“We’re still an engineering-driven company,” James goes on, “but we spend a lot more time now up front figuring out the customer’s needs, finding the simplest solution to those needs and then gradually adding on other features. The technical name for this is ‘Minimum Viable Product’ or ‘MVP.’ It’s not about trying to get away with doing less, or shipping a product before it’s ready, but avoiding complication and meaningless features so you can get a great first generation product into people’s hands and then let them tell you what else they want it to do.”
James has a law degree, but runs her company with the savvy of a manufacturing guru, relying on Flow manufacturing methodologies to ensure continual innovation, both in the products NK makes as well as the markets they serve.
“In the process of defining the MVP, there’s a grid of features: critical-to-success features, nice-to-have-but-not-critical and future features. The SpeedCoach GPS is an excellent example of this approach. The first generation was a great rowing-specific performance monitor, and since then we’ve added features to make it an advanced training tool.
“Our business right now is one-third rowing and sports and two-thirds weather instruments. Our plant is based on Flow manufacturing. Products move through a people-driven assembly line. That line is a sequence of steps that we run checks on all the time. It allows you to continually test products, at each step in the assembly.
“The thing about the CoxBox is that now it’s sort of mission critical. It’s a big deal when it doesn’t work and we want to make sure it always works, so we’ve spent a lot of time on that. When the latest version of the CoxBox product was first released, we had chosen to go with lithium ion batteries to make them lighter. As we all now know, lithium ion batteries can catch fire. Catching fire is bad, so we built in a lot of safety features–software safety features. But you don’t want them to disable the product unnecessarily. Any big change has the potential to be a problem.”
The manufacturing plant is a mix of robotic machines and human finesse. James picks up a small metal part that is two-toned and about two inches long.
“These represent a huge amount of learning. They’re made from marine grade stainless steel–three different plating processes–and milled from solid metal so the water can’t get into the wire, because that makes them corrode. And, they’re gold plated.” Each CoxBox has seven of these little gold-plated parts, connecting every prong in the speaker and microphone plugs.
“One of the things that’s a little odd about all of our products is that we use very high contrast monochrome displays. They’re very specialized because they’re rare. Color displays kill the battery. In the CoxBox, everything we design is to try to minimize battery use. Most of the battery is used to feed the three speakers. There are still lessons we’re learning. We always will be.”
James walks to the far side of the plant. “We have some products in development. There are always new products and new markets,” she says as she picks up an oarlock with what looks like an extra bit of plastic on the spine. “This product has been in development for quite a while. It’s an oarlock with power measurement and angle gauge. When you know the travel of the oar you can measure power, catch engagement, and peak force. We take all of those things and display them on the SpeedCoach. Our concept is that the person who needs the information about their stroke is the athlete. The coach can look at all the rowers and say something like, ‘Catch angle today is 62 degrees,’ and then the rowers can see their own angle. A Quad could coordinate their peak force.” She sounds wistful, a rower remembering a race, perhaps. “Can you imagine what a Quad could do if they can sync their peak force?”
For a company that started by making CoxBoxes, their next product will give rowers, coaches and coxswains the information to achieve the most power and speed, with just a little bit of technology attached to the spine of the oarlock.