Down the Rabbit Hole of Electronics Manufacturing

If you want to build hundreds of a thing (and let’s face it, you do) now is a magical time to do it. Scale manufacturing has never been more accessible to the hardware hacker, but that doesn’t mean it’s turn-key with no question marks along the way. The path is there, but it’s not well marked and is only now becoming well-traveled. The great news is that yes, you can get hundreds of a thing manufactured, and Kerry Scharfglass proves that it’s a viable process for the lone-wolf electronics designer. He’s shared tips and tricks of the manufacturing process in a prefect level of detail during his talk at the 2018 Hackaday Superconference.

Kerry is the person behind the Dragonfly badge that was sold at DEF CON over the last two years. Yes, this is #badgelife, but it’s also a mechanism for him to test the waters for launching his own medium-run electronics business. And let’s face it, badge making can be a business. Kerry treats it as such in his talk.

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A Cloned Bluetooth Tracker Meets its Maker

The holidays bring us many things. Family and friends are a given, as is the grand meal in which we invariably overindulge. It’s a chance for decades old songs and movies to somehow manage to bubble back up to the surface, and occasionally a little goodwill even slips in here or there. But perhaps above all, the holidays are a time for every retailer to stock themselves to the rafters with stuff. Do you need it? No. Do they want it? No. But it’s there on display anyway, and you’re almost certainly going to buy it.

Which is precisely how I came to purchase a two pack of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) “trackers” for the princely sum of $10 USD. I didn’t expect much out of them for $5 each, but as this seemed an exceptionally low price for such technology in a brick and mortar store, I couldn’t resist. Plus there was something familiar about the look of the tracker that I couldn’t quite put my finger on while I was still in the store.

That vague feeling of recollection sent me digging through my parts bin as soon as I got home, convinced that I had seen something among the detritus that reminded me of my latest prize. Sure enough, I found a “Cube” Bluetooth tracker which, ironically, I had received as a Christmas gift some years ago. Putting them side by side, it was clear that the design of these “itek” trackers took more than a little inspiration from the better known (and five times as expensive) product.

The Cube was a bit thicker, but otherwise the shape, size, and even button placement on the itek was nearly identical. Reading through their respective manuals, the capabilities also seemed in perfect parity, down to being able to use the button on the device as a remote camera control for your smartphone. Which got me thinking: just how similar would these two devices be internally? Clearly they looked and functioned the same, but would they be built the same as well? They would have to cut costs somewhere.

Determined to find out how a company can put out what for all the world looks like a mirror image of a competitor’s device while undercutting them by such a large margin, I cracked both trackers open to get a bit more familiar with what makes them tick. What I found on closer inspection of these two similar gadgets is perhaps best summarized by that age old cautionary adage: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

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Adventures in Automating a Candle Factory

Have you ever considered the manufacture of candles? Not necessarily manufacturing them yourself, but how they are manufactured in a small-scale industrial setting? It’s something that has been of great concern to Michael Schuldt as he grappled with the task of automating a simple manual candle production process.

It’s not just an interesting subject, but the topic of manufacturing automation is something we can all learn from. This was the subject of his Adventures in Manufacturing Automation talk at the recent Hackaday Superconference which you’ll find below the break. Let’s dive in and see what this is all about!

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Karakuri Kaizen: Hacks For The Factory Floor

Anyone who has an interest and/or career in manufacturing would have heard of Kaizen, generally a concept to continuously improve your process everywhere. Under that huge umbrella is Karakuri Kaizen, encouraging workers on the factory floor to adopt a hacker mentality and improve their own work stations. It is right up our alley, manufacturer or not, making this overview by Automotive News an entertaining read.

Karakuri could be translated as “mechanism”, but implies something novel in the vein of English words gadgets, gizmos, or dare we say it: hacks. Karakuri has a history dating back to centuries-old wind-up automatons all the way to modern Rube Goldberg contraptions. When applied to modern manufacturing (as part of factory training) it encourages everyone to devise simple improvements. Each might only shave seconds off assembly time, but savings add up in due time.

Modern global manufacturing is very competitive and survival requires producing more efficiently than your competitors. While spotlights of attention may be focused on technology, automation, and construction of “alien dreadnoughts”, that focus risks neglecting gains found at a smaller and simpler scale. Kaizen means always searching for improvements, and the answer is not always more technology.

Several points in these articles asserted purely mechanical karakuri are far less expensive than automated solutions, by comparing price tags which are obviously for industrial automation equipment. We’d be curious to see if our favorite low cost tools — AVR, PIC, ESP32, and friends — would make future inroads in this area. We’ve certainly seen hacks for production at a much smaller scale.

Embedded below the break is a short video from Toyota showing off a few karakuri on their factory floor.

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GoPro Factory Goes Nomad to Dodge Tariff Threat

Despite the fact that the United States and China are currently in the middle of a 90-day “cease fire” in their ongoing trade war, with new tariffs on hold until March 2019 while the two countries try to reach agreement, not everyone is waiting around to see who comes out on top. In a recent press release, action camera manufacturer GoPro has announced their intention to move some production out of China in the face of potential tariff expansions; which many analysts fear will be the result of the current stalemate. That’s right, only some of their production is moving.

“We’re proactively addressing tariff concerns by moving most of our US-bound camera production out of China,” says GoPro CFO Brian McGee. “We believe this diversified approach to production can benefit our business regardless of tariff implications.” Reading his words carefully, the key phrase here is “diversified approach”. GoPro doesn’t intend to move their entire production capability out of China, but only the production of the cameras which are designated for importation into the United States. GoPro models which are to be sold to other parts of the world will still be made in China.

This might seem an extravagant move just to avoid US tariffs, but with better than 40% of GoPro’s revenue for the third quarter of 2018 coming from the Americas, the company stands to be hit hard by the proposed 25% tax. Combined with the fact they shuttered their drone division last year citing “an extremely competitive aerial market”, and the proliferation of “GoPro clones” available for pennies on the dollar, it seems pretty clear that belt-tightening is the name of the game for the company that was once synonymous with action cameras.

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Young Entrepreneurs Learn What Really Goes Into Making a Product

Just to be clear, the primary goal of the Papas Inventeurs (Inventor Dads) was to have the kids make something, have fun, and learn. In that light, they enjoyed a huge success. Four children designed, made, and sold laser-cut napkin rings from a booth at the Ottawa Maker Faire as a fun learning process (English translation, original link in French.) [pepelepoisson] documented the entire thing from beginning to end with plenty of photos. Things started at proof of concept, then design brainstorming, prototyping, manufacture, booth design, and finally sales. While adults were involved, every step was done by the kids themselves.

It all began when the kids were taken to a local fab lab at the École Polytechnique and made some laser-cut napkin holders from plywood for personal use. Later, they decided to design, manufacture, and sell them at the Ottawa Maker Faire. Money for the plywood came from piggy banks, 23 different designs made the cut, and a total of 103 rings were made. A display board and signs made from reclaimed materials rounded out the whole set.

In the end, about 20% of people who visited and showed interest made a purchase, and 60 of the 103 pieces were sold for a profit of $126. Of course, the whole process also involved about 100 hours of combined work between the kids and parents and use of a laser cutter, so it’s not exactly a recipe for easy wealth. But it was an incredibly enriching experience, at least figuratively, for everyone involved.

Possibly the biggest takeaway was the way manufacturing involved much more than just pressing “GO” on a laser cutter. Some pieces needed sanding after laser cutting, and each piece got two coats of varnish. If you missed it, [Bob Baddeley] showed how labor, and not materials, ends up being the most expensive part of a product.

Retrotechtacular: Some Of The Last CRTs From The Factory Floor

It seems crazy having to explain what a piece of technology was like to someone who is barely fifteen years your junior, but yet we have reached that point when it comes to CRTs. There may still be remnants of CRT televisions and monitors left out in the wild, however, the chances that a kid preparing to enter high school has encountered one is slim. While there may be no substitute for the real thing, there is this raw video from [Glenn] who shared his tour of the Sony Trinitron assembly line in the early 2000s. Sony Trinitron Television

Sony Electronics’ cathode ray tube manufacturing facility was located alongside headquarters in Rancho Bernado, CA. The facility was shuttered in 2006 when Sony transitioned wholly onto digital displays like the flat-panel LCD line of Bravia televisions. [Glenn]’s video shows that the manufacturing process was almost entirely automated from end to end. A point that was made even more clear with the distinct lack of human beings in the video.

The Trinitron line of televisions first appeared in 1968. At a time where most manufacturer’s were offering black and white picture tubes, Sony’s Trinitron line was in color. That name carried through until the end when it was retired alongside tube televisions themselves. Sony’s focus on technological innovation (and proprietary media formats) made them a giant in the world of consumer electronics for over forty years in the United States, but in the transition to a digital world saw them seeding market share to their competitors.

A quick word of warning as the video below was shot directly on Sony’s factory floor so the machinery is quite loud. Viewers may want to reduce the volume prior to pressing play.

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