Trash Amps: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rock out

Courtesy Photo

Cal Poly alumni Adam Wegener and Ron Sloat founded Trash Amps, a company that builds speakers in sustainable, non-traditional packaging.

Kelly Trom

Imagine the power of an amplifier encased in the beer can you drank Saturday night. Two Cal Poly alumni made this fantasy into a reality with a company they started after graduating.

Adam Wegener and Ron Sloat founded Trash Amps in 2009, a company devoted to building speakers in a sustainable and non-traditional packaging. The humble soda or beer can is repurposed to serve as the casing for a small, but powerful speaker that is easily transported and can be used with any electronic accessory or electric instrument.

Wegener graduated in 2009 with a degree in manufacturing engineering and Sloat with a degree in general engineering and masters in industrial engineering. The two became fast friends while playing ping pong in the Yosemite residence halls. Their inspiration came from a friend who converted an Altoid box into a speaker.

“Most of the speakers you see on the market are just black plastic boxes,” Wegener said. “We invented a speaker insert to fit perfectly inside of any soda or beer can. We started taking the electronics from our can and putting them in other objects that you might throw away or have lying around your house.”

Sloat and Wegener learned the majority of the engineering knowledge they needed to construct the trash amp in their courses at Cal Poly.

“Being in the general engineering department, I was able to take a lot of courses that I probably wouldn’t have been able to take if I had picked a more focused major,” Sloat said. “It got me interested in electronics and all of the stuff I use on a daily basis at Trash Amps.”

The access to labs and different technologies also helped the two graduates with their new company.

“I also had a lot of exposure to designing parts,” Wegener said. “They have all sorts of machines, including laser cutters, at the manufacturing department that we got hands on learning with. That has helped us to figure out when we are designing a product what processes would we use based on how many we are making and how hard it is to set up.”

Other than the general topics learned in the classroom, the two also worked with SolidWorks, the software they used to create new circuit boards and exterior casing designs.

Although they were equipped with all of the knowledge to build a portable speaker, the process of designing was challenging when working on a tight schedule.

“Everything takes longer than you think it will,” Sloat said. “Adam will come up with a slightly different mechanical design or orientation and then I would take that and design a new circuit board. When it is all said and done, months have passed.”

The two were prepared for the engineering challenges that creating a new product would bring, but they did not learn about the business side of the industry until they were on the job.

“Owning a company and having worked at it a few years, I have been able to see how all of these different fields of study and parts of a business are really intimately connected,” Wegener said. “You really need all of them to be successful.”

Wegener always took pride in his engineering degree and didn’t put much stock into the business or marketing piece of the pie.

“I always thought that if you had a really great product designed by an engineer who knows what they are doing, then you would just sell a million and have a successful business,” Wegener said. “That hasn’t been the case with us.”

Wegener and Sloat learned about distribution, search engine optimization, building a website, credit card processing and perhaps most importantly, forging lasting relationships with customers.

“I never would have guessed when we were starting the company that this would be a cool way to meet all sorts of people from all around the world,” Wegener said.

Sending emails back and forth to new customers has been an important element to running the company for Wegener and Sloat.

Trash Amps customer Tony Villador discovered the product at a local street fair in San Jose.

“I was completely blown away,” Villador said. “I was looking for an MP3 speaker for a long time and the selection was just horrible. The sound quality of the Trash Amps was insane. It was loud and clear.”

But it wasn’t just the quality of the product that Villador was impressed with.

“They are just really cool dudes,” he said. “They are really down to earth and they talk about their product with passion. I don’t normally send emails after I buy a product, but I was so impressed with it that I did. We talked about design and product. It was great customer service.”

Mark Hutchenreuther, a retired computer science professor at Cal Poly, has also purchased a Trash Amp and contributed to the Indiegogo campaign for the second version of the product.

“At the time, there wasn’t really anything like it out there,” Hutchenreuther said. “It is a nice convenient size and it fits into a cup holder on a bicycle or car.”

Currently, the duo has sold 2,500 Trash Amps on its website, but they sell more than just the soda can speaker. A mason jar speaker came out in May and the two are currently working on a batch for the Christmas season.

Most of the assembly for the mason jars is done in the office by Wegener and Sloat.

“We put those together, test them out and then ship them,” Wegener said. “That way we have a lot of control over the product. We are pretty fanatical about the quality of the product.”

The last product that Trash Amps sells is the speaker kit, which buyers assemble themselves by soldering the parts together. The finished product then goes in a wood box.

The educational and DIY aspect is important to both Wegener and Sloat and may be developed further in future products by Trash Amps. They got their starts tinkering around as kids and want to bring that same experience to speaker building.

“As far as I know, I don’t see anyone else building DIY speaker kits so it seems like there is a lot of room for growth, but it’s something that the big companies would not do,” Wegener said. “That is a way we can differentiate our brand from others, it is the experience of upcycling instead of just purchasing an upcycled product.”

Recently, Trash Amps just started custom branding speakers to become a promotional item for companies. They built 200 custom speaker cans for Del Monte Foods as gifts for employees and customers.

“Corporate clients are looking for a high quality product and are willing to spend some extra money to get something that people will appreciate,” Wegener said.

Looking forward to the future, the two want Trash Amps to be a household name, Sloat said.

A main goal will be to get into the wholesale market so that more time can be spent on developing new innovative products rather than spending time on selling Trash Amps one at a time online.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Trash Amps was founded in 2010. It was, in fact, founded in 2009.