HUMBLE, Texas (Dec. 7, 2005) – Entrepreneur Joseph Lemelle felt like he’d been visited by the Grinch.

Lemelle, who created a unique line of holiday lights called Jingle Bell Christmas Home Lights, had successfully taken his product to market after finding a manufacturer in China who filled his initial order for 2,000 sets. The lights sold well at $25 per set. When a second container of the lights arrived from his manufacturer, however, Lemelle began receiving complaints and returns from his customers because some of the lights were burning out after just a few hours of operation. Suddenly, Lemelle’s entire enterprise seemed in danger.

“I’m not an engineer, so pinning down the cause of this problem and resolving it with my manufacturer was beyond my expertise,” Lemelle said. “I didn’t know where to turn.”

Fortunately, a friend told Lemelle about the Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program (SATOP), a NASA-funded program that provides free engineering assistance to small businesses with technical challenges through donations of time and expertise from 50 Space Alliance Partners throughout the country. Lemelle applied to the SATOP’s Houston center for help.

SATOP matched Lemelle’s Request for Technical Assistance (RTA) with David Gerber, who works on the Electronics and Computers team at United Space Alliance (USA) at Johnson Space Center. One of Gerber’s main responsibilities at USA is troubleshooting space flight hardware, experience he applied in finding the cause of Jingle Bell Lights’ technical challenge.

“After examining two strings of the lights – one that was working properly and one that was malfunctioning – I discovered that the problem in the malfunctioning lights was the control box that causes the lights to blink in different patterns,” said Gerber. “The control box on the malfunctioning lights was not constructed as well as the box on the functioning string of lights. I gave Joseph recommendations of how to fix some of the problems, including improving the quality of soldering on the printed wiring board.”
Lemelle was grateful for Gerber’s findings, which he presented to his manufacturer. “David was really helpful. I sent his findings to my manufacturer and at first they didn’t believe them, but we’re now working with them on using a different type of controller,” he said.
With the new controller in place, Lemelle can proceed with production of the lights with confidence in their performance. “I would have had a whole lot of malfunctioning light sets on my hands without help from SATOP,” he said.

David Braun, SATOP Texas project engineer, said that Lemelle is representative of the small business owners that the program is designed to assist. “Small businesses often can’t afford the engineering expertise they need to resolve technical issues that can threaten their continued success,” he said. “We were pleased SATOP could provide Jingle Bell Lights with this assistance in time for Joseph to have a happy holiday season.”