From Product To Burnout To Open-Source: The Ergo S-1 Keyboard Story

The keyboard, fully assembled, with black 3D printed body.

[Andrew] from [Wizard Keyboards] emailed us and asked if we were interested in his story of developing an ergonomic keyboard as a product. Many of us can relate to trying to bring one of our ideas to market. [Andrew], being a mechanical keyboard geek, knew a niche with no product to satisfy it, and had a vision he wanted to implement. He started meticulously going through steps for bringing his keyboard idea into life as a manufacturable product, and gave himself six months to get it done.

 Internals of the keyboard, showing the lower half with the mainboard on the left, and upper half of the keyboard with an FPC connecting keyswitches together on the right

After evaluating competing products and setting a price point, he designed the case, the keyboard’s mainboard, and even flexible circuit boards for wiring the keys up. The mechanical design alone had him go through many iterations and decisions, and he walks us through the different paths he’s faced. Whether it’s these insights, a story of a module with fraudulent FCC certification, or an approach to electronics design that led to him passing EMC tests with flying colors, there’s plenty to learn from [Andrew]’s journey.

Sadly, at some point, the project quickly outgrew the intended goal and became a drain. For instance, tuning the 3D printing processes alone took three months instead of one as planned. As the design was done, he got stuck on marketing material production – a field that turned out to be unexpectedly hostile to a hacker like him. After a year of work and five thousand hours of work spent on the project, he took a break, and afterwards, as he was trying to come back, [Andrew] realized that he has burned out. He took a few month long hiatus, and having recovered a bit, revisited the project. Still not thrilled about the product route, he decided that open-sourcing the keyboard would be the best outcome – doing justice to the time and effort spent working on it.

This is where the story ends – for now. [Andrew] has open-sourced everything one would need to create such a keyboard by yourself, designed assembly instructions, and even sells kit parts for those who’d like to take a shortcut. This wasn’t what he aimed for, but it’s a honorable ending – most commercial projects never get open-sourced even if they utterly fail to launch. Thanks to [Andrew], we got an insightful journey, a postmortem, and an open-source ergonomic keyboard project. Product stories grace our pages every now and then – here’s a similarly swerving story about a MIDI controller.

21 thoughts on “From Product To Burnout To Open-Source: The Ergo S-1 Keyboard Story

  1. I guess developing anything worthwhile is a lot of work, if one is going to do it right.
    The first thing I noticed was no numeric (10 button) keypad. One of my pet beefs is the way the zero key on computer keypads always seems to line up with the 1&2. I wish designers would look at older keypad machines (adding machines, desktop calculators) and the shape of the hand, and then offset the zero key to where the thumb is actually located.

    1. “Anything worth doing, is worth doing badly”
      -G. K. Chesterton
      (In other words, don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good enough”)

    2. One of the design philosophies behind many split ergo keyboards is to reduce finger travel. Having your hands at a more natural position doesn’t help that much if you’re constantly moving your wrist to access a numpad.

        1. You have layers for this,like you do on normal keyboard with shift .

          This thing is custom enough that I bet it runs a custom firmware (i.e. QMK ), where you can configure anything you want.

  2. A very sensible looking layout, and a product overall that seems to have been really quite well thought out. Though with the glut of split keyboards available I can see why going further to making it a product is too much. As I at least can’t see any huge standout feature making this an ergo split keyboard to choose over any other and as such a really great product. But as an open sourced project with a kit of parts for sale it seems like a winner, and lets the user add/tweak to suit their own needs.

    (would be nice to have the actual CAD file for tweaking not just the stl and with a quick skim I can’t see anything else – even if you use the ‘wrong’ CAD format for the programs I like/have access to its still much more in the spirit of open to make it easy to work on)

  3. “Still not thrilled about the product route, he decided that open-sourcing the keyboard would be the best outcome…”

    Great, now the Chinese can clone it and sell zillions of them /s

  4. A few thoughts after reading yhe full story (sorry Andrew, probably poinful)
    * If you start a new company, do something that you are really good at.
    * Learning while you develop is ok, but needs to be limited to a reasonable ammount. Separating learning effort and product development effort is important.
    * A permanently sustainable work model is 40h a week (Saturdays and sundays are off limits), 160 h a month, 800 h for 6 months (you do take some days off, do you? Observe your regular medical checkups!), 1600 h a year. 2000-3000 h in 6 month is overpowering 300-400%. Find me a electronics part that can do that…
    You can run on powerplay for some time, but you can not have powerplay from start to finish.
    * There is a “Minimum viable product”, good starting point, makes money.
    * What did he live of during development? Would the revenue cover the development costs, while still covering the running costs later and allow another development cycle? Business plan?
    * Would you work under these conditions as an employee? Can you ethically justify employing someone under these conditions? As a startup you are employer and employee at the same time.
    Would you finance a company with an employee that just has to learn every single work task to be done?
    * You can openssource your companie’s work and still make good money. The final step to open the project seems to be very viable to me. Kind of “How can I do it so anyone can pick it up at any time (including me)” allows you to take breaks whenever you want!
    * Good is good enough.
    * A initial batch can be hand made. Hand wiring 100 keyboards for 1h each or invest 100 h in a fancy flexpcb, that you still have to get manufactured, tested and soldered?
    * FDM with PLA for a Keyboard with clipped in key switches sounds like bad decission, without reading any details.

    Thanks so much for sharing the story, and opensourcing!
    I would have not bought the keyboard, but I consider buying the kit.

    All the best and health to Andrew!

  5. Nice write up!
    Looks like lots of energy was lost into FDM 3D printing and looking for alternatives plastic part manufacturing where injection molding should have been selected.

    In my ventures, we FDM for quick and dirty prototypes with fast turnaround, then the final one is SLS nylon from fab house for 200€, then commit to the mold for 2k€ in China.

    To me the me biggest challenge for a new product is the software : it’ an ever hungry beast, where we can throw money and time, and the customer never gets enough and don’t reward it accordingly.
    Then second, comes customer support with a flow of questions: imagine you sell 10k products a year, if only 10% contact you with about 2 or 3 questions, that’s, that’s more than 10 messages per days you have to reply and not focus on your engineering expertise.

    1. Injection moulding is hardly cheap to startup, and trades poorly for short production runs. And if you’re not already intimately familiar with the design of large injection moulds it is almost certain your first mould purchased will not be suitable for production, particularly for large hollow parts like the casing seen here (you have 4 pieces with tall thin walls, where those walls need to match up to each other without any warping, shrinkage, etc). Several tweaks and new moulds into the process, and you’re in the hole for an enormous amount of cash, your amortised per-unit cost for maybe a few hundred shots is through the roof, and you’re months into the process where you could have been producing similar cost 3D printed parts for those months instead. And then you need to find an injection moulding house willing to accommodate you for an excruciatingly tiny production run in the first place, which may end up being scheduled several years in the future behind customers pumping out tens of thousands of simpler parts. Or you can throw more money at the problem and take up injection moulding yourself…

  6. I’m not sure I like all those keyboards… (not only this one).

    First, I don’t like black for computers. I don’t understand that color choice. Black background, black monitor frame, black mouse, black black black… I don’t like it. I go for white keyboards. Or some bright color, green, whatever. sgi indy (*4). red ibm (*3). But not black. We have white paper and black letters, this is a good concept. Black is for funerals. Nobody wants to be there all day long.

    Then for a keyboard it is dirt. Within a month I find pieces of pizza, macaroni, chocolate, stains of coffee and apfelschorle, croissant, sausage and sauerkraut (of course!), bread crumbs, cutlet in aspic, you name it, I ate it, my keyboard got its share. So please give me something I can clean easy. Best would be water proof to take it in the shower.

    This baggy design screams out “let me collect everything”. Why? Is there a hole that soup can drain off? I mean, seriously, we have kale and pinkel(*1) soon and it is a problem.

    No, no, no. Not ideal.

    Microsoft Elite Natural Ergonomic Keyboard Vintage (*2) is my design. Bright and flashing colorful beige! And a place to stack all my cookies. Sadly not sold any more.

    Everything was better in the past. And had more tinsel.


  7. 5,000 hours is a lot of time to waste. (Looks sheepishly at his Steam record of the number of hours spent on Plants vs. Zombies). Umm, yeah, 5,000 is a lot. Anyway, kudos to Andrew for making it open source. I’ll show it to the guys at work. We have a few idle printers most days. Maybe they will print one up as a demo.

  8. I am not sure if taking an already open source Dactyl and trying to monetize the idea is a good approach. The final decision to open the source the results is cool though. Apart from that from what I know it’s impossible to injection mold (what seems to be crucial) the case because of cutouts in spherical shape. I’m not sure how Kinesis managed to mass produce this shape.

    1. A simple two-part mold cannot do the undercuts, but if you go for more mold parts you can do quite surprising complex shapes.

      Question is if it really pays off to go down that alley. Having the a cup shaped keyboard looks futuristic and cool (by whatever measures) but for a sturtup first product it could be a make or brake decission. There are probably a lot of other interresting ideas that would make it stand out.

      In the end as a startup you don’t need the coolest product on the market, but something that makes enough money to get you through the year and allows to explore new ideas sustainable.

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