Niall hopes to clean up with a new coal bunker
It was in November 2010 that Niall Greenan had his inspired brainwave of a better designed coal bunker. And it is this month that the Smart Bunker has started literally rolling off the production line in Northern Ireland.
Along the journey into production, the Smart Bunker has evolved from a storage device for solid fuel into a bunker for animal feed and road grit.
Back in that autumn evening almost two and a half years ago, Niall was visiting his mother who asked him to unload coal from a sack into her bunker in her back yard. Because of arthritis, Niall's mother was unable to do this herself.
But when Niall carried out the task he realised how much coal was being wasted in the traditional bunker because of the difficulty in accessing it. He was also concerned about the mess left behind in coal storage areas.
These difficulties got Niall thinking – he was inspired also because he had lost his job in the building industry and there was no work available for him.
Niall says that his 'light bulb moment' came when he was actually experimenting with lamp shades and bits of plastic as he developed a design that would do a much better job than the traditional static coal bunker.
Niall's Smart Bunker is made of plastic, light weight and easily moved, so it can be placed out of the way during summer.
It looks, he suggests, like a black wheelie bin and is designed to be easily assembled – in less than two minutes – and cleaned.
Users can access all the coal that is stored, avoiding waste, and don't have to get themselves dirty when using it.
But getting the Smart Bunker to market has been a long and difficult process.
It has also been expensive as Niall has had to put all his savings into the project, with backing also from family and friends, because of the lack of private sector investors.
"A lot has happened since then," says Niall, thinking back to his moment of inspiration. "Market research, speaking to local companies – I was introduced to lots of companies, working with a design company – the guy who finalised the shape."
The development phase has involved making prototype models and repeated evolutions through slight improvements.
Now, though, Niall believes he is on the cusp of real success, with 300 initial orders – many as the result of participating in shows in England and in Dublin. Agreements are in place with retailers sell the Smart Bunker.
It will also be sold through his website, http://www.greenans.com/smartbunker at the same price of £199 plus Vat at which it is being retailed.
Marketing has been assisted by the Smart Bunker being shortlisted for several awards for innovative design.
What has surprised Niall has been the way the product has quickly become recognised as suitable for several uses.
Enquiries have been coming in from Belgium and the Netherlands for its potential application to store grit for roads.
But the most exciting application is to store animal feed. One vet told Niall that there was a serious problem with animal disease caused by storage sites becoming contaminated and passing on disease and the difficulty in properly cleaning feed storage areas.
These difficulties do not only make animals ill, but can cause livestock deaths.
"Clean food is being placed on top of old food, causing disease," explains Niall.
As a result it looks as if a product intended to help people store their coal will actually have its most successful use by improving supply of feed to livestock.
While it might have been possible to reduce production costs by using a Chinese factory, Niall has worked with a local manufacture to hold costs down and secure a quality local supplier.
As a result, the Smart Bunker is not only a potential success for Northern Ireland entrepreneurship, but also for Northern Ireland manufacture.