Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Evolution of the Electric Eel Wheel

Three years ago I wrote a review for the Electric Eel Wheel 4.  I loved that little wheel, but it did have quite a few issues - some I managed to overcome, but others I just endured.

Despite its problems, I was so thankful for the invention of the Electric Eel Wheel 4, as it allowed me to try spinning on an electric wheel for the first time, at a price that was low enough for me to take the risk.

I thought it would be interesting to look back at the inception of the Electric Eel Wheel to see just how far it’s come in less than a decade and to show a little of what the future holds for this little machine that’s taking on the big boys.

The Electric Eel Wheel

Maurice Ribble, the inventor of the Electric Eel Wheel, has been committed to designing and inventing an affordable, yet extremely usable electric spinning wheel, for several years now.  He felt that spinners were being exploited, and that it was time to introduce a little competition to redress the balance.

I first heard about the Electric Eel Wheel when I was searching online for an affordable e-spinner - I wanted an electric wheel as I was finding spinning on my Ashford Traveller more and more painful.

Unfortunately, when I first looked, every electric spinning wheel was prohibitively expensive, especially as there was no way for me to find out if I would even enjoy using an e-spinner before I bought it.

Image from Glacial Wanderer, January 2009

I did, however, stumble upon Maurice Ribble's blog, where he talked about his experience designing an electric spinning wheel at a more affordable price.

I love looking at these early images of the Electric Eel Wheel in its infancy.  It shows just how far the Electric Eel Wheel has come in under a decade. The romantic in me also loves the fact that it was invented for his wife, Emily, to save her from lugging a full-sized spinning wheel around to spinning and knitting groups.

I love how home-made and functional it looks in its wooden box, but still, Maurice realised that there was a demand for this slightly inelegant looking e-spinner when many of Emily's friends started asking him to make one for them.  At the same time, Maurice also generously ‘gave away’ his design as an open source project, helping other spinning enthusiasts to build their own Electric Eel Wheels at an affordable price.

By the next year, you could buy a kit to build your own spinning wheel in a box, and if you didn't have the technical know-how, you could buy an assembled version.

Image from Glacial Wanderer, February 2010

You can see that the Electric Eel Wheel is gradually rising out of the box and it's started to become a little more compact.

The Electric Eel Wheel 2

Later that year, Maurice made several improvements on his original design, improving the motor life and reducing the volume, increasing the bobbin capacity and improving the assembly process, making it easier for people that bought it in kit form to make their own.  This was the birth of the Electric Eel Wheel 2.

Image from Glacial Wanderer, September 2010

It was now starting to look ever so slightly more commercial, with a custom, plastic controller box to protect the electronics.  It was however, still modestly hiding away in its box.

The Electric Eel Wheel 3

By 2013, there was enough demand for the Electric Eel Wheel, (in what was still a very niche market,) that Maurice was able to redesign it, using laser cut parts bought in bulk, making it cheaper to build and quicker to assemble.

Image from Ponoko.com, September 2013

The Electric Eel Wheel 3 was a much more professional and commercial looking machine and it had finally escaped out of the box!  It was starting to look a little more like the Electric Eel Wheel on sale today.  Anecdotally, I know a lady that still owns this version of the Electric Eel Wheel and it spins just as well as any spinning wheel.  She does find it quite noisy though.  

The volume of the Eel is one of the main problems that Maurice Ribble has had to try to overcome, and is continually trying to improve.  Keeping the cost down means using a cheaper motor and light, thin veneered wood, which just aren't going to be as quiet and as stable as a heavy, solid hardwood electric spinning wheel, using a brushless motor.

In 2013, an Electric Eel Wheel 3 sold for $290 and you could buy a self-assembly kit for $240.  That's pretty incredible considering that it was difficult to buy any kind of decent e-spinner for less than $800 at the time.

The Electric Eel Wheel 4

In March 2015, Maurice took the big step of launching the Electric Eel Wheel on Kickstarter, in the hope of funding the production of the 4th iteration of his little wheel.  For the project to go ahead, he needed to raise $5,000.  In the end, with the help of 245 backers, he managed to raise over 10 times that.

Some of those original 245 backers helped to form a community on Ravelry where they showed off their altered wheels, shared spinning tips, showed off the yarns they had spun and gave new spinners advice.  Fundamentally, they also shared issues that they had with their wheels - the main problems being the sound levels and the sharp yarn hooks.  The wonderful thing is that Maurice was, and is, a very active member of that group and Maurice listened to everybody.  Maurice also read my blog post about the Electric Eel Wheel 4 too, and took on board all of my comments.

Continuing in this spirit of openness and sharing, the Electric Eel Wheel 4 is open sourced, and if you are technically minded enough to build your own, you can find more information on how to here.

The Electric Eel Wheel 5

November 2016 saw the Kickstarter for the Electric Eel Wheel 5.  Maurice Ribble wanted to address everyone's issues to make an even smaller, quieter spinning wheel with a more usable sliding hook system.  A lot of the people that invested in the first Kickstarter jumped onboard to get the improved Eel Wheel and word was slowly spreading about this new affordable electric spinning wheel.  With a target of $5,000 to get the project off the ground, the Electric Eel Wheel 5 raised over $90,000 on Kickstarter - which is pretty incredible when you consider that this is a niche product that very few people have seen in person.

There is no doubt that the Electric Eel Wheel 5 and its later updates are a significant improvement on the Electric Eel Wheel 4 and its predecessors.  The sliding hook system on the 5 caused a lot less frustration (once initial issues had been resolved) and the sound levels were much improved.

Here is a little video showing the 4 and 5 side by side just to get an idea of the difference in volume.

You can hear that the 5 has thankfully lost that annoying high pitched whine that irritated most people.  The Electric Eel Wheel 4 noise levels measured about 68 decibels at my spinning speed, but the Electric Eel Wheel 5 measures a much more bearable 59 decibels.  (For the uninitiated, 70 decibels is twice as loud as 60 decibels.)

My family and I are all quite sensitive to noise and so I purposely wouldn't use the Electric Eel Wheel 4 when others were in the room, as I knew the noise would be too loud for anyone to watch the television at a comfortable level.  I am however happy to use my Electric Eel Wheel 5 with others in the room - albeit at a slightly lower speed than when I'm on my own.

I should probably point out that the first Electric Eel Wheel 5 came with a plastic flyer spindle and sliding hooks.  Quite a few spinners (myself included) started to see a wearing down of the plastic where the spun yarn was running over the plastic and so Maurice sent out replacement aluminium flyer spindles and sliding hooks to anyone affected.

The Electric Eel Wheel 5.1

Maurice is constantly working on new ideas and asking members of the Ravelry forum what they want in an electric spinning wheel, whilst listening to the problems and issues that arise.  It's a very unique and open business model and it's almost like later models of the Electric Eel Wheel have been designed by Maurice, but with Ravelry members as his design consultants.  Most companies are incredibly secretive about new ideas and inventions, but Maurice will happily risk sharing designs and ideas that he has for future models of the Electric Eel Wheel, knowing that feedback from Ravelry members has helped the Electric Eel Wheel become the little gem it is today. 

I never actually got around to writing a review for the Electric Eel Wheel 5, as Maurice had brought out the 5.1 very soon after everyone received their updated aluminium flyer rods and hooks.  

The 5.1 has a coat of varnish on it - so it looks much more finished than previous wheels -  I did have a problem with wood chipping off both of my wheels, so this definitely takes the design up a notch.  It also feels more finished and professional as the underneath is now enclosed by a detachable base.  Probably the biggest improvement made for the 5.1 is that the bobbins now have bearings at either end - making them quieter than the Bobbins Up bobbins that shipped with the 5.0

The Electric Eel Wheel Mini

Image from Kickstarter, November 2017

In November 2017, Maurice Ribble launched a Kickstarter for a new kind of Electric Eel Wheel - The Electric Eel Wheel Mini.  It was one of his most ambitious spinning projects yet as he challenged himself to make the smallest, most affordable electric spinning wheel ever.  Some would say that he'd already done this with the Electric Eel Wheels 3 - 5 but Maurice wanted to make a wheel that was even more affordable, to encourage many more people to try spinning for the first time.  The Electric Eel Wheel Mini sold on Kickstarter for an amazing, $50.   Unsurprisingly, over 1000 people backed it.
Maurice described it as a new category of spinning wheel to help bridge the gap between drop spindle and spinning wheel - the price being far closer to that of a drop spindle.  Inevitably, with such a low price tag came compromises - it was quite noisy and it was so light it needed to be strapped down to stop it from wobbling too much.  Changing direction to ply was also slightly awkward, but it was still an excellent introduction to spinning for a lot of people  - many of whom went on to upgrade to the larger model once they knew that they enjoyed spinning.

The Electric Eel Wheel 5.2

Image from Dreaming Robots

The latest and current model is the Electric Eel Wheel 5.2.  This went up for sale on the Dreaming Robots site on November 9th, 2018.  Once word went out that these were for sale, 100 of these wheels sold out in less than a day.  

I love the fact that it now retails at $260, which is $30 less than the Electric Eel Wheel 3 sold for, way back in 2013.  It just shows that being able to buy materials in bulk and mass produce many elements of the wheel has enabled Maurice to pass these savings onto his customers.

One of the most notable differences is the plastic flyer wheel.  I'm a little torn on the decision to use plastic for the flyer.  I much prefer the look of the wood, but I can appreciate that plastic helps to keep the price down when you are working in large quantities - also, the thin wood of previous flyers could warp, which would add to the noise levels and the vibration of the wheel itself.

The frame has bearings built into the front and back for the flyer spindle to sit in to help quieten the wheel further.  The back panel hinges downwards to make it easier to change the bobbins.  I love these design features and I feel it improves the quality feel of the wheel significantly.

Image from Dreaming Robots site

The spindle is also made from one piece of solid steel - the earlier flyer spindles were made from two pieces of aluminium screwed together and some people found (myself included) that the rods weren't completely straight - which added to the wobble of the wheel.  (Mine would go for a little walk when I used the aluminium spindle at high speeds.)  Making it from one piece of steel will lengthen the life of the spindle and reduce the chance of having a 'wobbly wheel'.

Quite a few people on the Ravelry forum requested a faster wheel so that they could ply faster and spin shorter fibres more easily.  The 5.2 spins at a maximum of 1400 rpms, which is 40% faster than the previous model.

The sliding hooks have also changed, making them significantly easier to move than the ones on the 5.1.  I must say though, I'm a little uneasy about how they look, but aesthetics are probably a little more important to me than most.

There is a regular discussion on the Electric Eel Wheel Ravelry forum on the aesthetics of the Eel and how important keeping the price down is, compared to how the wheel looks, and the functionality of the wheel.  Personally, I would rather pay more for an attractive, quiet wheel, but opinion is very much split on this issue.  Making the Electric Eel Wheel as affordable and as enjoyable to use as possible is at the forefront of Maurice's design concept and I cannot fault him for that.

The Electric Eel Wheel Mini 2

Update:  The Name of the Electric Eel Wheel Mini 2 has now been changed to the Electric Eel Wheel Nano to reflect the fact that it is a complete redesign and is even smaller than the original Electric Eel Wheel Mini.

After the success of the Electric Eel Wheel Mini, Maurice took the feedback he received from his tiny wheel and made a radical decision - to design the new Mini completely out of plastic.  At first, I think quite a few people were quite uneasy at the thought of having a completely plastic spinning wheel, but as images and footage of the wheel began to come out, people started to come around to the concept of a tiny plastic spinning wheel. The primary reason for making the Electric Eel Wheel Mini 2 Nano was to make an affordable, yet easy to use electric spinning wheel.  By using modern, injection moulding techniques, it's much easier and cheaper to make a thousand wheels out of plastic, than it is out of wood.  Also, by making the frame out of one solid piece of plastic rather than several pieces of wood, there are far fewer variables - making for a quieter wheel with fewer vibrations.

Image from Kickstarter, November 2018

The Kickstarter for the Electric Eel Wheel Mini 2 Nano launched on the 15th of November 2018 and it reached its target in less than an hour.  The Kickstarter has been running for 12 days now and already over 2,400 people have backed it - and there are another 23 days to go!  I think that's a real achievement and it shows just how much confidence has built up around the Electric Eel Wheel product range over the last few years.

The new Mini has a much more open design than any of the previous Eel Wheels, allowing you to see how much yarn is on the bobbin very easily. It's also significantly quieter than the previous Mini and apparently, it's quieter than the 5.0. Changing direction is done by the flick of a switch, which is a real improvement on the previous Mini.

The basic Kickstarter package is just $60.  I'm in the UK and so I anticipate that this is going to cost me about £80 with shipping and import duty.  Even for an entry level spinning wheel, that is incredible!

Update:  The Kickstarter for the renamed Electric Eel Wheel Nano ended on the 21st of December 2018, with 4,351 backers pledging $498,671 in total.  It successfuly exceeded it's goal by 3,324%.  
Due to many people bulk buying, the total number of Electric Eel Wheel Nanos sold was 5,381!  That's some achievement and will have a massive impact on the number of people learning to spin in 2019.

Future Electric Eel Wheels

Maurice Ribble is fundamentally an inventor who found a gap in the market.  He's constantly working on new ideas and designs.  He compares the design process of the Electric Eel Wheel to mobile phone companies, constantly working on future iterations of the device - improving it and upgrading it so as to maintain interest in the product and to keep the product fresh and innovative. 

One request that is often made on the Ravelry forum is for the Electric Eel Wheel to have some kind of auto flyer, similar to the Woolee Winder so that spinners don't have to constantly keep stopping to move the sliding hooks.  Maurice is working on his own, redesigned version of this for future wheels and it could well be a possibility in the future.

There's also talk of a phone app so that you can see how fast you're spinning, how long you've spun for and maybe even get the app to communicate with the wheel to get it to stop and start instead of using a foot pedal.  All of this is very exciting and it's why I love the Electric Eel Wheel!


The Competition

You only have to look at the number of new Electric Eel Wheel forum members every day on the Ravelry forum to see how much talk there is amongst spinners about the Eel and how information about it is slowly spreading by word of mouth; whether it's amongst spinning friends or over social media. Everybody loves a bargain and everyone loves to share information about bargains with their friends.  Telling everyone about the £1,200 spinning wheel you've just bought might be considered a little vulgar, but plenty of people are telling their friends about the £80 spinning wheel they just backed on Kickstarter.

Until now, the big e-spinner companies haven't taken the Electric Eel Wheel seriously and it's been pretty much overlooked - the Ashford site describes their e-spinner as the smallest, lightest and most versatile electronic spinner ever, and the Hansen website describes their e-spinner as the lightest, most compact, technically advanced e-spinner that is commercially available today.  (Incidentally, the Ashford e-spinner weighs 2 kilos, the Hansen weighs 2.2 kilos and the Electric Eel Wheel weighs 1.8 kilos.)

While one or two of these superlatives may be true, it's obvious that the Electric Eel Wheel is not yet seen as competition by these bigger companies.  I believe that with the future release of the Mini 2 Nano and the current performance of the Electric Eel Wheel 5.2, the big companies have got some serious competition on their hands that they can't afford to ignore anymore.

Related Posts - Electric Eel Wheel Nano Orifice Reducerwith a built-in Twist Keeper - and other Modifications



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CMW said...

Very nice article and history of the EEW evolution. I saved your article link and also sent it to some of my spinner friends. I have a 5.2 EEW and two original Mini's. I also am back 51 for the EEW Mini 2. I agree with your comments about Maurice being so open about his designs. I am sure the big E Spinner companies are aware of his work and his price competition. We need to keep supporting his work and continue to provide him with good feedback.

Colleen Weiss

Kathryn - Craftmehappy said...

Thank you Colleen! You're ahead of me then. I'm backer number 90 and I only have the EEWs 4 and 5. I'm slightly envious of your 5.2, but the 5 is still a lovely machine. Even with three wheels, I won't have spent close to the price of an Ashford or - gulp - a Hansen.

Anthonia said...

Many, many thanks for pointing me in the direction of this obviously popular espinner. As a two-month old aspiring spinner having only used a drop spindle, the idea of an espinner appealed to me but I couldn’t justify the outlay for a hobby, but I’m going to give the nano a try for now while I think of the 5.2