The Price Of Domestic Just In Time Manufacturing

Hardware is hard, manufacturing only happens in China, accurate pricing is a dark art. Facts which are Known To Be True. And all things which can be hard to conquer as an independent hardware company, especially if you want to subvert the tropes. You may have heard of [Spencer Wright] via his superb mailing list The Prepared, but he has also been selling an unusual FM radio as Centerline Labs for a few years. Two years ago they relaunched their product, and last year the price was bumped up by a third. Why? Well, the answer involves more than just a hand wave about tariffs.

The Public Radio is a single-station FM radio in a mason jar. It’s a seemingly simple single purpose hardware product. No big mechanical assemblies, no complex packaging, not even any tangential accessories to include. In some sense it’s an archetypically atomic hardware product. So what changed? A normal product is manufactured in bulk, tested and packaged, then stored in a warehouse ready to ship. But TPR is factory programmed to a specific radio station, so unless Centerline wanted one SKU for each possible radio station (there are 300) this doesn’t work. The solution was domestic (US) just in time manufacturing. When a customer hits the buy button, a unit is programmed, tested, packed, and shipped.

As with any business, there is a lot more to things than that! The post gives the reader a fascinating look at all the math related to Centerline Labs’ pricing and expenses; in other words, what makes the business tick (or not) including discussion of the pricing tradeoffs between manufacturing different components in Asia. I won’t spoil the logical path that led to the pricing change, go check out the post for more detail on every part. 

We love hearing about the cottage hardware world. Got any stories? Drop them in the comments!

Pan And Tilt To A New 3D Printed Business Model

When shooting video, an easy way to get buttery smooth panning and tracking is to use a mechanical device like a rail to literally slide the camera side to side. These range from what is essentially a skateboard to incredible programmable multi-axis industrial robots, a wide variety of which have been visible in the backgrounds of Youtuber’s sets for years. But even the “low end” devices can run hundreds of dollars (all that anodized aluminum doesn’t come cheap!). Edelkrone has been building lust worthy professional (read, pricey) motion setups for a decade. But in the last year they’ve started something pretty unusual; lowering prices with their Ortak series of 3D printed equipment. But this time, you do the printing.

In the FlexTILT Head 3D, everything in red is printed at home

Since the RepRap we’ve been excited about the future of democratized at home manufacturing, but to a large extent that dream hasn’t materialized. Printers are much more useful now than in the early days but you can’t buy a new mug from Starbucks and print it at home. But maybe that’s changing with Edelkrone’s offering.

When you buy an Ortak product you get one thing: all the fasteners and hardware. So the final product is more durable and appears more finished than what would pop out of your Prusa unaided. What about the rest of the device? That’s free. Seriously. Edelkrone freely provides STLs (including print setting recommendations) with detailed step-by-step assembly instructions and videos (sample after the break). Nice hack to avoid piracy, isn’t it?

Why choose the do-it-at-home style product? A significant price reduction of course! The Ortak line currently includes two products, the FlexTILT head you see above, and a skateboard-style slide called the SKATER 3D. Both of these were sold fully finished before making it to the DIY scene. The FlexTILT Head 2 comes in at $149 when you buy it whole. And when the PocketSKATER 2 was for sale, it included a FlexTILT Head and came to $249. Now? Each hardware kit is just $29.

So is this it? Have we hit the artisanal DIY micro-manufactured utopian dream? Not yet, but maybe we’re a little closer. Edelkrone is a real company which is really selling these as products, right there on their website along with everything else. They refer to it as “co-manufacturing” which we think is a clever name, and talk about expanding the program to include electronics. We can’t wait to see how the experiment goes!

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After The Con: Da Bomb Badge Post Mortem

We’ve reported on the world of electronic badges here at Hackaday since their earliest origins in [Joe Grand]’s work for DEF CON 14 in 2006. In that time we’ve seen an astonishing variety of creations, covering everything from abstract artwork to pure functionality in a wearable device. But it’s not been quite so often that we’ve looked at the other side of the BadgeLife coin, so it’s fascinating to read [John Adams]’ account of the work that went into the production of this year’s 500-piece run of the Da Bomb DEF CON indie badge.

In it, [John] goes over scheduling worries, component sourcing issues, PCB assembly delays, and an in-depth look into the finances of such a project. In case anyone is tempted to look at Badgelife as the route to millions, it rapidly becomes apparent that simply not losing too much money is sometimes the best that can be hoped for. There were a few design problems, one of them being that the SAO I2C bus was shared with the LED controller, resulting in some SAOs compatibility issues. In particular the AND!XOR DOOM SAO had its EEPROM erased, creating something of a headache for the team.

A surprise comes in the distribution: obviously shipping is expensive, so you’d think badge pick-ups at the con would be straightforward alternative. Unfortunately, they became something of a millstone in practice, and organising them was a Herculean task. Astoundingly, some paying customers didn’t bother turn up for their badges. Which was especially infuriating since the team lost valuable conference time waiting for them.

Some of you are BadgeLife creators and will nod sagely at this. Still more of you will wish you were BadgeLife creators and find it a useful primer. For everyone else it’s a fascinating read, and maybe makes us appreciate our badges a bit more.

The images may have departed, but just to return to the origins of BadgeLife, here’s our coverage of that first [Joe Grand] badge.

Manufacturing In China Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday 10 July 2019 at noon Pacific for the Manufacturing in China Hack Chat with Jesse Vincent!

It started out where many great stories start: as a procrastination project. Open source developer Jesse Vincent decided that messing around with a new keyboard design was a better thing to spend time on than whatever he was supposed to be doing, and thus Keyboardio was born.

Their heirloom-grade keyboards of solid maple and with sculpted keycaps are unique to the eye and to the touch, but that’s only part of the Keyboardio story. Jesse has moved further down the road of turning a project into a product and a product into a company than most of us have, and he’s got some insights about what it takes. Particularly in climbing the learning curve of off-shore manufacturing, which will be the focus of this Hack Chat. Join us to learn all about the perils, pitfalls, and potential rewards of getting your Next Big Idea manufactured in China.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday July 10 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Analog Failures On RF Product Cause Production Surprise

A factory is a machine. It takes a fixed set of inputs – circuit boards, plastic enclosures, optimism – and produces a fixed set of outputs in the form of assembled products. Sometimes it is comprised of real machines (see any recent video of a Tesla assembly line) but more often it’s a mixture of mechanical machines and meaty humans working together. Regardless of the exact balance the factory machine is conceived of by a production engineer and goes through the same design, iteration, polish cycle that the rest of the product does (in this sense product development is somewhat fractal). Last year [Michael Ossmann] had a surprise production problem which is both a chilling tale of a nasty hardware bug and a great reminder of how fragile manufacturing can be. It’s a natural fit for this year’s theme of going to production.

Surprise VCC glitching causing CPU reset

The saga begins with [Michael] receiving an urgent message from the factory that an existing product which had been in production for years was failing at such a high rate that they had stopped the production line. There are few worse notes to get from a factory! The issue was apparently “failure to program” and Great Scott Gadgets immediately requested samples from their manufacturer to debug. What follows is a carefully described and very educational debug session from hell, involving reverse engineering ROMs, probing errant voltage rails, and large sample sizes. [Michael] doesn’t give us a sense for how long it took to isolate but given how minute the root cause was we’d bet that it was a long, long time.

The post stands alone as an exemplar for debugging nasty hardware glitches, but we’d like to call attention to the second root cause buried near the end of the post. What stopped the manufacturer wasn’t the hardware problem so much as a process issue which had been exposed. It turned out the bug had always been reproducible in about 3% of units but the factory had never mentioned it. Why? We’d suspect that [Michael]’s guess is correct. The operators who happened to perform the failing step had discovered a workaround years ago and transparently smoothed the failure over. Then there was a staff change and the new operator started flagging the failure instead of fixing it. Arguably this is what should have been happening the entire time, but in this one tiny corner of the process the manufacturing process had been slightly deviated from. For a little more color check out episode #440.2 of the Amp Hour to hear [Chris Gammell] talk about it with [Michael]. It’s a good reminder that a product is only as reliable as the process that builds it, and that process isn’t always as reliable as it seems.

KiCad And FreeCAD Hack Chat

Join us Wednesday at noon Pacific time for the KiCad and FreeCAD Hack Chat led by Anool Mahidharia!

The inaugural KiCon conference is kicking off this Friday in Chicago, and KiCad aficionados from all over the world are gathering to discuss anything and everything about the cross-platform, open-source electronic design automation platform. As you’d expect, Hackaday will have a presence at the conference, including a meet and greet after party. There’ll also be talks by a couple of our writers, including Anool Mahidharia, who’ll be taking time out of his trip to the States to drop by the Hack Chat with a preview of his talk, entitled “Fast 3D Model Creation with FreeCAD”.

Join us for the KiCad and FreeCAD Hack Chat this week with your questions about KiCad and FreeCAD. If you’ve got some expertise with electronic design tools, make sure you come by and contribute to the discussion too — we’d love to hear your insights. And as always, you can get your questions queued up by leaving a comment on the KiCad and FreeCAD Hack Chat event page and we’ll put them on the list for the Hack Chat discussion.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, April 24, at noon, Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Flip Chips And Sunken Ships: Packaging Trick For Faster, Smaller Semiconductors

You may have heard the phrase “flip-chip” before: it’s a broad term referring to several integrated circuit packaging methods, the common thread being that the semiconductor die is flipped upside down so the active surface is closest to the PCB. As opposed to the more traditional method in which the IC is face-up and connected to the packaging with bond wires, this allows for ultimate packaging efficiency and impressive performance gains. We hear a lot about advances in the integrated circuits themselves, but the packages that carry them and the issues they solve — and sometimes create — get less exposure.

Cutaway view of traditional wire-bond BGA package. Image CC-BY-SA 4.0 @TubeTimeUS

Let’s have a look at why semiconductor manufacturers decided to turn things on their head, and see how radioactive solder and ancient Roman shipwrecks fit in.

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