Few mundane household tasks conjure a sense of looming disaster quite like the process of installing a window air-conditioning unit.
Yet, for decades, many of us have returned each spring to the dread ritual: balancing a 50-pound metal box on the rim of a windowsill with one hand while jamming the windowpane shut with the other, and hoping the whole thing doesn't end up crashing to the ground or, worse, onto the head of a passerby below.
So, Kurt Swanson, a mechanical engineer with a passion for thermodynamics, set out to build a better air conditioner. Called Noria, the result is sleek and curvy, programmable via a smartphone app, easily installed in a window without apparent peril, and slim enough to be stored under your bed.
It's the first product his Southwest Center City industrial-design firm, Likuma Labs, is seeking to bring directly to consumers, by way of a Kickstarter campaign launching Tuesday.
The Noria air conditioner, priced at $295 for early supporters, will ship in time for summer 2017 - if the company can raise $250,000 in 45 days to make that cool fantasy a reality.
Swanson, 32, said he'd been thinking about tackling a project in thermodynamics since launching Likuma four years ago.
"I thought, 'How can I leverage what I know about heat transfer into a better product?' " he said. The air-conditioning unit was the obvious choice. "This is a big industry, and people buy these things and universally hate them."
Over the last year, he and the Likuma team - including industrial designer Devin Sidell, 30, and electrical engineer Don Pancoe, 48 - began focusing on the problem in earnest. Swanson's father, Will, 61, a 25-year Boeing employee with expertise in ergonomics, took a yearlong sabbatical to help out.
Swanson said rethinking the air conditioner was a project that required engineers and designers to work closely together in a way they might not at established appliance manufacturers. Likuma is well-equipped for that kind of collaboration - the entire staff shares a single small office inside NextFab, the fabrication and maker space on Washington Avenue.
Their innovation was in rethinking how the air conditioner components fit together, reconfiguring the fans and heat-exchanging coils.
"We want to pack as much cooling power in as small a space as we can," Will Swanson said.
The result is 40 percent smaller than a comparable standard air conditioner, he said, and 25 percent lighter. It comes with a handle, and it slides into a frame that's positioned in the window first for easier installation.
Tucked under desks in their office are prototypes: a working version in unglamorous sheet-metal housing, and an example of what the finished body will look like, made with NextFab's 3D printer, laser cutter, and water-jet cutter.
The design part of the job was in Likuma's wheelhouse. The company has crafted everything from a dog-food dispenser that doubles as a toy for a Manayunk company called Paw 5 to the housing for an iPhone-powered DNA analysis device for Old City's Biomeme. Tacked to the wall of their office are new ideas for an air filter for Camfil, a large New Jersey air-filter manufacturer, and a laparoscopic tool handle for a medical-device company.
"Anything you buy really should get design consideration," Swanson said.
But actually taking a product into production is new for them.
That's why they're allowing for a long lead time, to test and debug the air conditioner over the summer and find a manufacturer that can begin production in the fall.
Sidell said their priority was making deliveries on time. "That's a big thing with Kickstarter. Some campaigns are able to raise thousands and thousands of dollars, but the real test is: Are they able to deliver? Most of them are late."
And a three-month delay that stretches through the summer would be disastrous.
So, Swanson said, he's hoping customers will be willing to plan.
"Now that it's warming up, people are still dealing with their big, boxy air conditioner," he said. "The pain is still fresh in their mind. We're hoping that will be the impetus for people to say: 'OK, this is the last year I use this stupid thing! I want to upgrade next year.' "