An Interview with Catalyst on Designing the Perfect Waterproof iPhone Case

An Interview with Catalyst, on Desiging the Perfect Waterproof Case.

Do you ever stop and wonder how your favorite rugged waterproof iPhone case is designed and produced? I recently had the opportunity to chat with the owners and creative forces behind Catalyst, the manufacturer of my own favorite waterproof case; and from the sound of it, it's no simple matterThe conversation we had really shines a light on just how much energy, attention, and commitment to the highest standards are poured into their exceptional line of extreme duty cases.

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The Catalyst case isn't just one of my favorite cases available for the iPhone, it's one of the best, equaling or surpassing its closest competition in the rugged, waterproof case arena. So when I had the chance to interview Josh Wright and June Lai for iPhone Life, I jumped at the chance, knowing it would give both our readers and me a unique glimpse into all the work that goes into crafting a case of such high quality.

iPhone Life: Waterproof cases for the iPhone seem to be one of the most challenging types of protective cases to design and build. What is the hardest part about designing a case that has to withstand stressful situations and higher levels of abuse?

June: We agree with that on many levels. We believe that a fully functional, everyday-use, waterproof case for the iPhone is the most challenging type of protective case to design and build. When you think about it, a regular case is simply a piece of plastic, rubber, metal or leather with cut-out holes for all the buttons, sensors, cameras, microphones and speakers. Our case is different. We fully cover every feature of the iPhone with a water and air tight housing and protection, and yet, all of the features of the iPhone work as normal, including the touchscreen, cameras, microphone, and speaker acoustics as well as the Touch ID. The final product is a precision engineered case and we perform relentless testing to make sure we bring you one of the highest performance cases on the market. The end result is a slim case that is waterproof to 5-meters and drop proof to two meters. These features fundamentally change how you are able to use your iPhone.

An Interview with Catalyst, on Desiging the Perfect Waterproof Case.Designing a case that has to withstand stressful situations and higher levels of abuse is not difficult for us. This goes back to our roots and the reason why we were one of the first to design fully functional waterproof cases. About four years ago, we spent most of our time outside climbing, swimming at the beach, or traveling and our iPhones had become an essential part of our gear. We looked on the market and couldn't find any cases that met our needs and Ziploc bags weren't going to cut it, so we created the protective waterproof case we wanted for our lifestyle and launched it on Kickstarter to test the market for our product.

If you've ever been hanging around on the side of a sheer rock face isolated from other people with a storm about to hit and facing an emergency rescue situation, you'd want to make sure you had a case that was slim enough to carry in your pocket, have a secure lanyard attachment point so it won't fall down the side of the cliff, be able to call for help so the acoustics have to work, take photos or share your location on a map so help can find you. These were the specs for our first waterproof case and we've continued to develop and improve every element with each generation of our cases.

iPL: What are some of your main considerations when designing a waterproof case?

Josh: From a technical standpoint, our case is made up of multiple individual component parts (anywhere from 24 to 42 parts depending on the version of the case) that are precisely made and assembled into the final product. One of our main considerations is that we love our high performance gear and sometimes use it well beyond its intended limits. Consequently, we over engineer our products to exceed our claims because we understand that sometimes our customers will push the limits too. We mostly use our cases in everyday life such as listening to podcasts in the shower, washing it when dirty or leaving it on the dinner table where a drink might spill. However, with proper maintenance, our case is also perfect for those times when we've gone rappelling through waterfalls or when our friend jumped off a 7-meter (25 foot) cliff into a 5-meter-deep jungle pool only to find his case had fallen out of his pocket and was sitting at the bottom of the pool for over an hour until he could rescue it. (This is the reason we encourage customers to use a Catalyst Floating Lanyard.)

One of the reasons why we have a higher waterproof specification than our competitors is that our case is completely air and water tight. When working on our first waterproof case, we found we had to invent our own unique acoustic technology for sound transmission in and out of the case that did not compromise the waterproof performance. Our cases employ our proprietary non-permeable membranes that are engineered and constructed to transmit sound into and out of the case while also being able to withstand higher pressure at depths.

An Interview with Catalyst, on Desiging the Perfect Waterproof Case.

iPL: Tell us about the process of actually getting a case like this fabricated. What's the process of evolution from drafting board to the consumer's hands?

June: Contrary to common belief, Apple does not provide case companies like us with inside information before a new device launches. Officially a project starts once Apple has released their developer specifications for cases and we start to build our design. Unofficially, we follow the rumors just like you and work on concepts long before the official announcement so we start with our best guess and can hit the ground running and adjust our models to the actual data when it is released by Apple.

When designing the case, we focus on finding the right balance between protection, functionality, and style. We love the design of the iPhone and we do not want to hide it in a fully covered housing, so we have always engineered our case so that it could be made of clear materials to showcase the iPhone rather than hide it. This creates more of an engineering challenge than you might think at first glance. Most products of this nature look “OK” on the outside, but when you open them up and look at the inside you will see a lot of details that the engineers built for the product's structure and injection processes. An example of this would be like the inside the battery door of a common remote control. On our case though it has to look good from the inside out in order to inject the plastic clear. If you look close, the front and the back of our case is completely clear with no visible defects, added structural ribs or tooling marks.

This level of simplicity is the result of carefully designing the product from the inside out. We never have our designers simply sketch what we want the case to look like then asking an engineer to figure out how to make it work. From the beginning, the engineers and designers work hand in hand to build every detail from the inside out. We obsess over the smallest details. Every fraction of a millimeter on each of its individual components is examined for functionality and its ability to be produced economically and consistently.

Since the looks and functionality of the case are just as important as protection, we minimize the use of bulky layers of materials to achieve protection. Actually, our case works more like a helmet with a hard shell (made from high impact polycarbonate) surrounding the iPhone with strategically placed internal foam and rubber bumpers to hold the phone securely in place. When is the last time you saw a football player or motorcyclist wearing a thick rubbery helmet? You don't because that's not how impact protection actually works. We wanted our case to be as thin and light as possible so you would actually want to take your case everywhere you go.

Josh: We build as many prototypes as needed till we feel all of the features come together in one tight stylish package. The development does not stop with prototypes. We continue to test and retest every element in our product until it's time to hit the go button and start mass production.

The end result is a minimal, purposeful product that showcases the iPhone inside a slim waterproof rugged housing. Catalyst is first and foremost committed to creating quality iconic products. Good design is a part of our DNA and we believe our cases are more than an accessory – they are an extension of your iPhone. If you've held one of our cases you know what this commitment to quality feels like.

iPL: Your waterproof cases surpass your competition in just about every category. That's pretty impressive. As makers of one the best rugged protection cases on the market, where would you like to see the Catalyst brand in say, four or five years, if all goes well?

June: We see Catalyst as a household name for waterproof accessories that are known for their quality and design. In the meantime, we plan to grow significantly and create many new products and product categories. For example, we recently introduced a new line of products that turn a waterproof sleeve into a portable ultra slim backpack or shoulder tote. Since we live in an area where we have rainstorms unexpectedly, our sleeves make it really easy to carry your tablet or laptop anywhere and if it rains, your valuables stay safe and dry. Even if you’re out for a meeting or a coffee you never have to choose between having your technology with you at all times and keeping it protected from the elements.

iPL: Thank you for your time, we are big fans of the Catalyst brand here at iPhone Life and we are happy to see you folks doing so well and meeting with such success!

Josh: We want to thank iPhone Life following us since our first humble roots on Kickstarter. We value all of the feedback you have provided and a lot of the improvements that showed up in our successful new products have been based upon great comments and reviews like yours.

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Dig Om's picture

As Senior Gear Editor at iPhone Life, Dig reports on the latest and greatest accessories built for the iOS ecosystem. From rugged gear and Bluetooth speakers, to headphones, unique iDevice cases, and iOS remote controlled vehicles, Dig's articles cover a wide range of great gear for the iPhone and iPad. A core gamer for over three decades, Dig also writes iPhone Life's Game Centered column, which focuses on the best iOS games and game related news. Additionally, Dig's company, iDoc Tech Support, offers web design and administration services as well as iPhone and iPad repairs. When not at his work desk, Dig loves spending time with family and enjoying the wonders of nature. You can follow him on Twitter @idoctech