The makers of Altoids, the "curiously string mint" from England, probably never imagined that their signature tin would cause such a stir so many years later. At the time, many products were packaged in small metal cases. The difference with Altoids is that it stayed in business and it refused to make the move to plastic. The tin became iconic in its own right, a packaging success not realized by many companies. Over the years, people decided that the empty tin made a pretty good small storage container. What Altoids customer hasn't ended up with a tin full of spare buttons or loose change at some point?
Then there are some people who take the use of the tin to the next level. Altoids likes to call these folks "tinnovators" and for good reason. The electronics enthusiasts and artists have turned Altoids tins into belt buckles, iPod speakers, shadow boxes and even fine art. Basically the only thing limiting what you can do with an Altoids tin is your imagination and size of the project. That's the beauty of any tinnovation: It's all housed in a two by three inch (5- by 7.6-centimeter) metal box. This means that projects take hours and days instead of weeks and months. It's also a pretty green hobby, with every repurposed Altoids tin avoiding the bottom of a landfill or even a recycling bin. After all, reuse is second in line in the battle cry of the green-centric, ahead of recycle and behind reduce.
Nick Brenn is a teenager from southeastern Pennsylvania who has been working with Altoids tins since 2006. There are a couple of broad categories when it comes to tinnovation -- artists and inventors. Nick falls into the latter category, a young entrepreneur with an interest in electronics. He's worked with Altoids tins in several ways, but his specialty is the Altoids tin flashlight.
Altoids Tin Flashlight
Nick Brenn first got inspired to work with small electronic circuitry in an intro to electronics class during his freshman year of high school. He began working on small electronics projects and was in search of a suitable container. It needed to be a box that was sized appropriately and rugged enough to protect the circuitry inside. The Altoids tin fit these requirements and had a built-in clasp to boot, granting easy access for bulb and battery replacement in his signature flashlight.
The mini-flashlight is of the LED variety, which stands for light emitting diode. It's composed of simple components like a switch, some wire, a battery and the LED, all housed inside of the tin. The great part about the LED flashlight is its simplicity. It allows Nick to complete each one in a few hours, stretched over the course of a day with his other chores and the inevitable distractions of being a teenage inventor. Nick has been selling his lights at indestructibles.com for several years and was contacted by Edmunds Scientific to carry his popular DIY flashlight kit. The kit saves Nick a lot of time and has garnered the interest of electronics enthusiasts.
Nick has proven himself to be quite the entrepreneur. When he struck his wholesale deal with Edmunds, he had to set up a DBA and create a tax identification number, which he did through his mother's nutrition business. The name of his company is NGB Enterprises. He named it like any titan of business -- using his initials. Aside from the components, his only implements are his Dremel rotary tool and his trusty Leatherman multi-tool. He's also hard at work on a light-activated Altoids nightlight, which will be available both as a kit and in completed form.
The future looks bright for this enterprising young tinnovator. A hobby has turned into a nice little business for Nick, and he's gotten a lot of enjoyment from selling his lights to people from, as he says, "California to Serbia." The Serbian order was even paid in Euros, a first for NGB Enterprises. He keeps up with other Altoids inventors on the indestructible.com Web site and has gotten feedback from a project curator from Make: Magazine who helped him refine his DIY kit. Nick plans to continue to work with the Altoids tin as his medium. He says it best: "Nothing competes with fresh innovation."
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- Brenn, Nick. Interview, July 11, 2009.