How do you build the world’s finest iPad case? As fast as you can

grove feature joe mansfield ken tomita

Gray Powell might as well have left nuclear launch codes on the steps of the Kremlin.

When the tipsy Apple engineer stumbled out of Gourmet Haus Stadt in Redwood City back in 2010, leaving behind an iPhone 4 prototype, he took Apple’s notoriously impenetrable veil of secrecy with him.

Days later, the press had dissected every last detail of Apple’s new phone, and there may have been no one more crushed by the leak – besides the red-faced engineer – than Ken Tomita and Joe Mansfeld.

If you’re going to stand on Apple’s shoulders, you had better be quick on your feet.

The cofounders of Grove, a tiny startup in Portland, Oregon, had just spent nine months refining their dream for the ultimate iPhone 3G case. Milled from solid bamboo, finished with a painstaking sanding process and hand oiled, no one was making anything like it. The duo had sunk thousands of dollars into computer-controlled milling equipment, churned through dozens of prototypes to cope with the phone’s curvaceous shape, and designed a site to sell them online.

And on the day it launched, the iPhone 4 leaked.

“Nobody bought any,” Tomita recalls. “Basically no one cared about the iPhone 3G anymore, everyone started thinking about the iPhone 4 prematurely because of the leak.”

The iPhone 4’s flat shape made the complex techniques Grove had developed to deal with the swooping 3G obsolete overnight. It also taught them an important lesson: If you’re going to stand on Apple’s shoulders, you had better be quick on your feet.

The incident – and its agonizing lesson – became part of Grove’s DNA as it has sprouted from scrappy startup to one of the most nimble players in the considerable Apple ecosystem – a space estimated to be worth $5 billion by 2015. This fall, the very same day Apple announced it’s new iPad Mini Retina, Grove unveiled an impressive new case for it, sporting a unique articulated cover made from laser-cut bamboo. They had designed it in less than a week.

grove ipad mini case

It started – once again – with a leak. Only this time they were ready for it. “Apple isn’t as tight with their new product launches anymore,” Joe grins. “I’ve noticed that everything leaks three to six months before the products even come out, which is good for us.”

Apple’s loose lips allowed Grove to start working on the case for the iPad Mini before it even officially existed. “The process of developing this was pretty nuts,” Mansfield says, showing off the final model. “We basically figured out the specs for the new iPad and worked around the clock to make a photo-ready prototype.”

The design is as clever as it is undeniably attractive. Rather than milling the whole thing out of a single chunk of material, it’s built more like furniture – an exercise near and dear to Tomita, who worked as a carpenter before he started Grove. Where two pieces of wood intersect, Grove uses a finger joint not unlike something you might see used to construct a desk drawer, but cut by lasers and rounded off to match the profile of the iPad.

“Apple doesn’t give specs to anyone,” he explains. “We either have to guess or be really fast. We’re really fast.”

“This construction method is completely revolutionary,” Tomita says, “Basically, you end up with no end grain. It’s also much stronger, because we’re using material in a strong direction only.”

The edges are constructed of rock maple – the same ultra-tough wood that gets knocked silly in bowling pins and stomped around in skateboard decks. But Grove hasn’t abandoned its signature bamboo – a thin sheet of it backed by microsuede forms the cover. Precisely spaced laser cuts allow the bamboo to flex in a controlled way, rolling back into a cylinder thats acts as either a beefy, book-like handle, or a stand.

Without a finished product in front of them until just days before it had to go on sale, Grove’s Web team had to scramble to get the word out, too. “We basically had one day for our team to photograph this thing, touch up the photos and build the site,” Tomita says.

The end result: One of the best-looking, most original iPad Mini 2 cases on the market appeared online the same day as the Retina-screened iPad Mini.

If Grove’s latest products, seem radically different from where they were just four years ago, it’s because the company is too. They’ve inhabited three different locations in as many years, and grown from two guys with a CAM machine to 16.

That’s still tiny compared to monoliths like Belkin and Incipio, but they learned to flip the script and use their small team to outmaneuver the big guys. “When a new iPhone comes out, everyone wants it, and everyone wants it fast,” says Tomita. “I think that actually plays to our strength.”

“Apple doesn’t give specs to anyone,” he explains. “We either have to guess or be really fast. We’re really fast.” Ideas can go go from napkin to wood in a matter of hours because the same guys that dream stuff up have the capability to build it. “When Joe and I are working well together, it just clicks,” Tomita says. “We don’t have bureaucracy.” And the manufacturing process can be equally efficient. “I don’t have to fly to China and wait for all these molds to get made and stuff like that.”


Part of that seat-of-the-pants building process plays to their personalities. “Both me and Joe are more like spontaneous guys,” Tomita says. “We’re good at just being thrown in there and just doing things on the fly. I’m used to doing project work for festivals and stuff. You only have like a week, you just have to make stuff up and go with it.”

The detritus from this unconstrained creative process litters Grove’s office: whimsical laser cuttings of bears and gears, pennant lamps made from bamboo, a tiny ball-in-maze game made from laminated plywood. At Mansfield’s standing desk, a lamp made from two entwined pieces of bamboo droops just a bit too low from the laser perforations that allow it to curve – an early attempt at the same technique later perfected for the bamboo cover on the new iPad case.

“We do all kinds of side projects,” Tomita says, recalling a few recent ones. “Joe made this acrylic birdhouse that was amazing. Me and our production manager Sean, we made a huge boombox out of 96 sheets of acrylic, laser cut. It’s completely clear.” Next up: A bamboo chandelier for the main workspace.

These guys can’t sit still. Which is a good thing for a company whose designs will become antiquated once a year like clockwork, based on the machinations of a highly secretive company hundreds of miles away.

Ultimately, the challenge suits them. “If we were just making belts or something, we would just design it once and it would be around for decades,” Mansfield explains. “We have this opportunity – we’re forced to constantly innovate. It puts a lot of pressure on us, but I think in the end it’s a good pressure. It’s a good stress.”

Tomita agrees. “We’re used to all of sudden picking things up and rearranging the shop. That’s just part of the culture here. That’s what makes us strong.”

Smart Home

Alexa toilets, robot ovens, and all the other smart home tech coming to CES

CES 2019 is finally here. So what smart home trends can we expect to see this year? Regardless of what you seek, chances are you'll find it on the floor at CES 2019. Here's what we're expecting to see.

Is AMD's Navi back on track for 2019? Here's everything you need to know

With a reported launch in 2019, AMD is focusing on the mid-range market with its next-generation Navi GPU. Billed as a successor to Polaris, Navi promises to deliver better performance to consoles, like Sony's PlayStation 5.
Smart Home

Want a smarter home? Ditch the keys with these great smart locks

A good smart lock should offer a combination of security and convenience. Fortunately, these devices keep your home protected, your family safe, and your belongings secure from possible intruders.

These point-and-shoot cameras make your smartphone pics look like cave paintings

If your smartphone camera just isn't giving you the results you're looking for, maybe it's time to step up your game. The latest and greatest point-and-shoot cameras offer large sensors, tough bodies, and long lenses -- something no phone…
Movies & TV

You can get a screaming deal on LG OLED TVs just in time for the Super Bowl

LG is offering steep discounts on its critically acclaimed OLED TV models just in time for the Super Bowl, letting discerning viewers watch their favorite athletes with higher picture quality than ever.

Can gamers build a society? We’ll find out in Amazon’s ‘New World’

Amazon is building a massively multiplayer game with an entirely unique world and setting. We interviewed three of the game developer’s about why Amazon is taking a risk on ‘New World’ and how the company’s cloud tech makes it…
Emerging Tech

Today, hacks are annoying. In future smart cities, they could kill

Corporate security breaches are becoming so common that people now accept them as part of a digital future. But for smart cities, system hacks could prove far dangerous for citizens.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live – CES 2019 – Day 2

On today's episode: While we are for sure going to run down all the hottest and most innovative tech announcements of CES 2019, we're also hosting some amazing guests and panels. From the latest VTOL taxi from Bell Helicopters and the…

Ride through the sky and get fit on the fly with the NordicTrack VR Bike

During CES 2019, we tried the NordicTrack Virtual Reality Bike. Combining fitness and gaming, the bike is one of the most interesting approaches to VR traversal we’ve seen. 

The best CES 2019 health gadgets combat stress, pain, and more

We can all use some help with our health and CES 2019 was packed with intriguing devices designed to combat pain and stress, help you monitor blood pressure, reduce tinnitus, and care for the sick or elderly.

These shoes let me stroll through ‘Skyrim,’ and I desperately want to go back

After being funded in just two hours on Kickstarter back in October 2018, Cybershoes has earned itself a place among the coolest VR walking and running tech. At CES 2019, we got to try them out and they live up to the hype.
Smart Home

Treat your furry friend with the best pet tech at CES 2019

We all want the best for our feline companions and furry best friends, so we're seeing more and more innovative gadgets designed for pets. CES 2019 was a veritable treasure trove of pet tech and these devices are our picks.

It took three years, but OLED laptops are having another moment at CES

To our surprise, OLED laptops made a strong showing at CES 2019. With options in the works from most of the major PC manufacturers, it seems OLED is making its comeback.
Smart Home

Booth babes, banned sex toys, and other mishaps at CES 2019

From female sex toys bans, to fake Tesla/robot collision stories, there was some weird stuff going on at CES 2019 this year. Here are some of the biggest mishaps and flubs at the world's biggest tech show.