Invention and Play with PEV Labs

The first pressing question upon arriving at PEV Labs in Waynesboro is obvious:  Would you like to ride the Dork Pod?

Brian Williford of PEV Labs in Waynesboro, demonstrates a vertical electric vehicle he calls a dorkpod in his shop. Photo by Norm Shafer.

An inviting yet slightly terrifying brainchild of Brian Williford, the Dork Pod boasts a zero degree turning radius and one-thumb navigation controls. But it is only one of many Personal Electric Vehicles (PEVs) being developed and tested in his lab.

Segway plans, electric scooters, and cargo tricycles dot his drawing boards. One of his signature projects is developing a wood-frame electric bicycle. Designed on a computer, cut by a CNC machine, and epoxied to the waterproof shine of a ship’s hull, these bikes and their electric motors allow riders to set their level of personal effort while still carrying them up hills and through town.

“Creative freedom is the core,” says Brian. “I’m not saying we don’t need traditional transportation. I’m saying we’re starting to realize that the places and contexts we thought were necessities aren’t as limited as we imagined.”

Brian Williford of PEV Labs in Waynesboro, shows off a prototype of a wooden bike frame built for an electric assist bicycle. Photo by Norm Shafer.

Mind + Matter = Business Philosphy

Brian’s entrepreneurial history has moved him through the upper echelons of computer-based website and application development, serving as the lead site developer for National Geographic in the 1990s when they were launching the first database-driven website and designing Apps for Apple during much of the past decade. It’s also landed him in roles in auto repair, electronic music, and carpentry. 

“It’s the combination of using my mind and my hands,” he says. “I’ve done both. But it’s the combination that I love.”  While re-imaging electronic vehicles occupies much of his time these days, it by no means defined the bounds of his business. “People ask me what I do, and I say I take the weird jobs. Every day is something different.”

Brian Williford works on a design at his PEV Labs in Waynesboro, Friday April 27, 2018. (Photo by Norm Shafer).

Innovation at Home in Waynesboro

Brian moved his business to Waynesboro after several years of running Tinkersmiths, a free community makerspace in Charlottesville. “After running a public facing entity for four years, I needed space to focus on my craft.”  He says that Charlottesville was difficult to work in with its many distractions. Here, “It’s peaceful, there’s good light, and it’s a nice drive over the mountain on the motorcycle.”

He’s also embedded in a community of fabrication, located at the South River Complex and surrounded by blacksmiths, ceramicists, woodworkers, glassblowers, and more. “I call myself a digital fabricator now. This building is full of traditional fabricators, and they can run circles around me in their craft. What I can do differently is the technological integration — make 3D models prior to the first physical prototype, or manufacture items en mass.”

In additional to being a digital fabricator, Brian sees PEV Labs as a co-fabrication facility. “Another skilled craftsman will come to me for one small part of their project, from perfect circles to precise inlays.  I do the cutting edge technological integration in service to or with other skilled tradesmen, to do more than either of us could do alone.”

Nathan Semiao of Blackbear Furniture and Cabinets and Brian Williford of PEV Labs talk as a computer guided saw that Williford built cuts out puzzle pieces for a dresser that Semiao was going to build. Photo by Norm Shafer.

Advice to Fellow Makers

Brian shares that his business philosophy isn’t always popular, but it is fun. “I embrace failure. If you try something and succeed, what have you learned? Once you’re accustomed to the process of learning from failure, most of the normal fear falls away.”

Instead of focusing on initial success, he emphasizes play and iteration. “Protect your bodies and fingers, but always bend a material: find its failure point, test the circuit. It costs about $103 dollars to start a business today — get a free website and an EIN. You might not have a client yet, but you can begin, can try, can learn.”

And always, he says, have fun. “If it stops being fun, do something else. Everything I’ve done that was lucrative, I did for fun. Today I’m really just a guy in the mountains who doesn’t have to wear nice clothes anymore and gets to play with cool tools.”

Brian Williford of Pev Labs helps Jason King move a glass top on a display case that King had Williford build for a DJ in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Norm Shafer.

To Learn More about PEV Labs, check out their website at http://pevlabs.com   To learn more about the entrepreneurs and innovators who are building the Waynesboro local economy, check back at www.growwaynesboro.com/meet-them for ongoing profiles and small business stories.

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