Goodbye, TechShop

The CEO of TechShop, [Dan Woods], has hit the legal E-stop and declared Chapter-7 bankruptcy for the business. All ten US locations were shuttered on Wednesday with absolutely no advance warning. You can read the full statement from [Dan] here.

We are deeply saddened to hear of TechShop’s closing, and while it wasn’t implausible that this might happen someday, the abrupt shuttering must come as a painful shock to many for whom TechShop was an important part of their personal and professional lives. We owe a lot to the work and effort they put forth; they led the way as a pioneering makerspace and for more than ten years, TechShop provided access to tools, taught classes, and created opportunities for the DIY world that are still as important today as they were in the mid-aughts.

Leading the Way

Jim Newton, founder of TechShop, originally wanted a space to tinker with his pet projects. “I’m a frustrated inventor who needs to have access to this kind of stuff. And people always say that the best companies are the ones where the founders are passionate about what they are creating, which is exactly what I am,” Jim said in an interview in 2007, at the beginnings of TechShop.

It turned out that there were a lot of other tinkerers who wanted to work their pet projects too.

TechShop took a risk. All new business ventures are risky and most fail quite quickly, but in 2006, this whole movement, this idea that people could build things and take advantage of new technologies, personal fabrication, ad-hoc manufacturing, and rapid prototyping outside of universities and commercial R&D labs, was just a dream.

Adafruit was incubating in Limor’s dorm room. Arduino was just the name of some pub in Italy. Eben Upton was wiring prototype Raspberry Pi’s by hand. Nathan Seidle was still reflowing Sparkfun’s boards with a toaster oven. Maker Faire, “The World’s Largest Show and Tell,” wouldn’t even launch until the following year.

In the fading light of high school shop classes, people often were shown the ways of woodworking, light metalwork, and maybe how to fix a car or two. Filling a business with a smorgasbord of advanced machinery and teaching people how to use it, was, and still is, a relatively new concept. TechShop had a dream and made it real with the dedication of hardworking support staff and instructors around the country. Continue reading “Goodbye, TechShop”

Friday Hack Chat: Open Source Startups

If you want to found a company, you’ll find pages and pages of advice scattered around the Internet telling you exactly how to do that. What if you want to found an Open Source hardware company? That’s a bit harder — you can’t do hardware as a service, and that Open Source moniker will drive away investors.

[Zach Fredin] is one of the rare founders that are making an Open Source hardware company work. In 2015, he developed NeuroBytes, a system of electric neurons designed in such a way that if you get two hundred or so, you can replicate the brain of a flatworm. NeuroBytes was a finalist in the 2015 Hackaday Prize, the team received an NHS grant, and now these PCB neurons will be on the market late this year.

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking to [Zach] about the challenges about creating a company from nothing and doing it the Open Source way. Topics for this Friday’s Hack Chat will include the experience of building an Open Source hardware company, manufacturing, building a community around a product, and business spelled with dollar signs.

This Hack Chat will be Friday, noon, PDT. If you have a question for [Zach]. here’s a spreadsheet we’ll be drawing questions from. Continue reading “Friday Hack Chat: Open Source Startups”

Automated Parts Counter Helps Build a Small Business

We love to see projects undertaken for the pure joy of building something new, but to be honest those builds are a dime a dozen around here. So when we see a great build that also aims to enhance productivity and push an entrepreneurial effort along, like this automated small parts counter, we sit up and take notice.

The necessity that birthed this invention is [Ryan Bates’] business of building DIY arcade game kits. The mini consoles seen in the video below are pretty slick, but kitting the nuts, bolts, spacers, and other bits together to ship out orders was an exercise in tedium. Sure, parts counting scales are a thing, but that’s hardly a walk-away solution. So with the help of some laser-cut gears and a couple of steppers, [Ryan] built a pretty capable little parts counter.

The interchangeable feed gears have holes sized to move specific parts up from a hopper to a chute. A photointerrupter counts the parts as they fall into plastic cups on an 8-position carousel, ready for bagging. [Ryan] also has a manual counter for wire crimp connectors that’s just begging to be automated, and we can see plenty of ways to leverage both solutions as he builds out his kitting system.

While we’ve seen more than a few candy sorting machines lately, it’s great to see someone building hardware to streamline the move from hobby to business like this. We’re looking forward to seeing where [Ryan] takes this from here.

Continue reading “Automated Parts Counter Helps Build a Small Business”

Codebender Shuts Down

Codebender.cc was a cloud based IDE for Arduino development. It was made for hackers by a few fellows in Greece. Unfortunately, while they saw some serious success, they were never able to convert it all the way into a viable business.

By November 31st Codebender.cc will be completely shut down. They assure users that the site will be in read-only mode for as long as the end of the year, but longer if the traffic justifies it. Codebender made it all the way to 10,000 monthly active users, but hosting and administration overshadowed this success to the tune of 25,000 dollars a month. Not so much as far as businesses go, but without revenue it’s more than enough to shut down a site. Their business plan aimed to tailor their services for specific chip manufacturers and other companies but those deals never came together.

It’s a pity, we were excited to see if Codebender could continue to grow. They were certainly doing some really interesting stuff like remote code upload. As the comments on the site show, many users, especially educators and Chromebook users, loved Codebender — your code isn’t stuck on one computer and where there was a browser there was an IDE.

Two paid services will remain (starting at $10/month) at addresses with different TLDs. But the post does mention that the Codebender project started as Open Source. Their GitHub repo isn’t a clear path for rolling your own, but if you do manage to hack together a working Codebender implementation we’d love to hear about it.

MakerBot Releases Their 6th Generation Of 3D Printers

Just in time for the back to school and holiday season, Makerbot has released their latest line of printers. The latest additions to the lineup include the new Makerbot Replicator+ and the Makerbot Replicator Mini+.

The release of these new printers marks MakerBot’s first major product release since the disastrous introduction of the 5th generation of MakerBots in early 2014. The 5th generation of MakerBots included the Replicator Mini, priced at $1300, the Replicator, priced at $2500, and the Replicator Z18, priced at $6500. Comparing the build volume of these printers with the rest of the 3D printer market, these printers were overpriced. The capabilities of these printers didn’t move many units, either (for instance, the printers could only print in PLA). Makerbot was at least wise enough to continue building the 4th generation Replicator 2X, a printer that was capable of dual extrusion and printing more demanding filaments.

The release of the Makerbot Replicator+ and the Makerbot Replicator Mini+ is the sixth generation of MakerBot printers and the first generation of MakerBot’s manufactured overseas. This new generation is a hardware improvement on several fronts and included a complete redesign of the Makerbot Replicator and the Replicator Mini. The Replicator Mini+ features a 28% larger build volume than the original MakerBot Replicator Mini and an easily removable Grip Build Surface that can be flexed to remove a printed part. The Replicator+ features a 22% larger build volume than the MakerBot Replicator and a new Grip Build Surface. The Replicator Mini+ is $1000 ($300 cheaper than its predecessor), and the Replicator+ is $2000 ($500 less expensive). Both new printers, and the old Replicator Z18, now ship with the improved Smart Extruder+.

While the release of two new MakerBots does mean new hardware will make it into the wild, this is not the largest part of MakerBot’s latest press release. The big news is improved software. Makerbot Print is a slicer that allows Windows users to directly import 3D design files from SolidWorks, IGES, and STEP file formats. Only .STL files may be imported into the OS X version of the Makerbot Print software. MakerBot Mobile, an app available through the Apple Store and Google Play, allows users to monitor their printer from a smartphone.

Earlier this year, we wrote the Makerbot Obituary. From the heady days of The Colbert Report and an era where 3D printing would solve everything, MakerBot has fallen a long way. In the first four months of 2016, MakerBot only sold an average of about fifteen per day, well below the production estimated from the serial numbers of the first and second generation Makerbots, the Cupcake and Thing-O-Matic.

While this latest hardware release is improving the MakerBot brand by making the machines more affordable and giving the software some features which aren’t in the usual Open Source slicers, it remains to be seen if these efforts are enough. Time, or more specifically, the Stratasys financial reports, will tell.

Compact ePaper Business Card

Is your business card flashy? Is it useful in a pinch? Do they cost $32 each and come with an ePaper display? No? Well, then feast your eyes on this over-the-top business card with an ePaper display by [Paul Schow]. Looking to keep busy and challenge himself with a low-power circuit in a small package, he set about making a business card that can be updated every couple of months instead of buying a new stack whenever he updated his information.

Having worked with ePaper before, it seemed to be the go-to option for [Schow] in fulfilling the ultra-low power criteria of his project — eventually deciding on a 2″ display. Also looking to execute this project at speed, he designed the board in KiCad over a few hours after cutting it down to simply the power control, the 40-pin connector and a handful of resistors and capacitors. In this case, haste made waste in the shape of the incorrect orientation of the 40-pin connector and a few other mistakes besides. Version 2.0, however, came together as a perfect proof-of-concept, while 3.0 looks sleek and professional.

Continue reading “Compact ePaper Business Card”

From Project To Kit: Bringing It All Together

This is the fourth article in a series examining the process of turning an electronic project into a marketable kit.We’ve looked at learning about the environment in which your kit will compete, how to turn a one-off project into a costed and repeatable unit, and how to write instructions for your kits that will make your customers come back for more. In this article we will draw all the threads together as we think about packing kits for sale before bringing them to market.

If you had made it this far in your journey from project to kit, you would now have a box of electronic components, a pile of printed instructions, and a box of plastic bags, thin card boxes, or whatever other retail packaging you have chosen for your kit. You are ready to start stuffing kits.

It’s All In The Presentation

Label all your hard-to-identify components, your customers will appreciate it.
Label all your hard-to-identify components, your customers will appreciate it.

Your priorities when stuffing a kit are to ensure that your customer receives all the components they should, they can easily identify each component, and that the whole kit is attractively presented such that it invites them to buy or build it when they first see it. This starts before you have packed any components, you must carefully prepare each component into units of the required number and label them if they are otherwise not easy to identify. Pre-cut any components supplied on tape, and write the part number or value on the tape if it is not easily readable. You may even have to package up some difficult-to-identify components in individual labeled bags if they can not have their values written on them, though this incurs an extra expense of little bags and stickers. Some manufacturers will insist on using black tape on which an indelible pen doesn’t show up!

Take care cutting tapes of components, it is sometimes easy to damage their pins. Always cut the tape from the bottom rather than the side with the peelable film, and if necessary carefully bend the tape slightly to open up the gap between components for your scissors.

If you start by deciding how many kits you want to stuff in a sitting, list all the kit components and prepare that number of each of them in the way we’ve described. Then take the required number of packages or bags, and work through each component on the list, stuffing all the bags with one component before starting again moving onto the next. In time you will have a pile of stuffed kits ready to receive their instructions and labeling.

The next step will be to fold your instruction leaflet and pack it in the kit. Take a moment to consider how it can be most attractively presented. For example with a kit packaged in a click-seal plastic bag it makes sense to fold the leaflet such that the colour photo of a completed kit is visible from the front. And when you place it in the bag make sure that the PCB is visible top-outwards in front of it. A customer looking at your kit wants to immediately see what they are likely to create with it.

LED-flasher-kit-labelYou can now seal the bag or box, the kit is packed. It only remains to give it a label that has all the pertinent information and is attractive to the customer. You will probably want to put your logo or web address on the label as well as any small print required, alongside the most important feature — the kit description. We’ve put a warning about small parts and curious children, you may also want to put any reglatory or compliance information here. For example in Europe you might have a CE mark and a WEEE logo. Once you have your design sorted you can run it up in your favourite label designing software – we used gLabels – and print as many as you like on sheets of sticky labels. We strongly suggest buying good quality branded labels, the extra money is well worth it when you consider that they will have much more reliable glue, and the extra cost per individual kit will be marginal. Pick a label size which fills a decent space and is easy to read on your packaging without being too big, we used 70mm x 37mm laser labels of which 24 can be had on a single sheet.

Your First Finished Product

if Hackaday made electronic kits, they might look a little like this.
If Hackaday made electronic kits, they might look a little like this.

It’s an exciting moment when you apply a label to your first fully packed kit and see for the first time what your customers will see: a finished product. You aren’t quite done though, because there is still the small matter of quality control. Take a kit or two from your batch at random, and count all their contents off against your list of what they should contain. This should help you ensure you are packing the kits correctly. Finally, give a completed kit to a friend who has never seen it before, and tell them to build it as a final piece of quality control. They are simulating your customer in every way, if they have no problems then neither should anyone who buys the kit.

Once you’ve built your batch of kits, you will now have the stock you will send out to your customers. Imagine yourself as a customer, if you order a kit you will expect it to arrive in pristine condition. You should therefore now take care of this stock of kits to ensure that it does not come to any harm, its packaging is as crisp and new when you send it out as when you packed it, and it has not attracted any dust while in storage. We would suggest having a separate plastic box for the stock of each kit in your range, and protecting the kits from dust with a lid, or by storing them inside a larger plastic bag.

As we’ve worked through this series of articles, we’ve tried to give you a flavour of the process of bringing an electronic kit from a personal project to the masses. We’ve looked at learning about the market for your kit, we’ve discussed turning a project into a product before writing the best instructions possible and now stuffing your first kits ready for sale. In the next article in the series we’ll talk about how you might sell your products, the different choices open to you for online shops, marketplaces, and crowdfunding.