[Michael Lynch] has been a solo developer for over three years now, and has been carefully cataloguing his attempts at generating revenue for himself ever since making the jump to being self-employed. Success is not just hard work; it is partly knowing when the pull the plug on an idea, and [Micheal] has been very open about his adventures in this area. He shares the good news about a DIY project of his that ended up becoming a successful product, complete with dollar amounts and frank observations.
About a year ago, we covered a project he shared called TinyPilot, which is an effective KVM-over-IP device, accessible over the web, that could be built with about $100 worth of parts. [Micheal] found it to be a fun and useful project, and decided to see if he could sell kits. However, he admits he didn’t have high expectations, and his thoughts are probably pretty familiar to most hardware types:
I questioned whether there was a market for this. Why would anyone buy this device from me? It was just a collection of widely available hardware components.
Well, it turns out that he was onto something, and the demand for his device became immediately clear. He’s since given TinyPilot more features, an attractive case, and even provides a support plan for commercial customers. This is an excellent reminder that sometimes, what is being sold isn’t the collection of parts itself. Sometimes, what’s being sold is a solution to a problem people have, and those people are time-poor and willing to pay for something that just works.
It’s great to see [Michael] find some success as a solo developer, but his yearly wrap-up covers much more than just the success of TinyPilot as a product, so be sure to check it out if you’re at all interested in the journey of working for yourself.
There aren’t many brands that inspire the kind of passion and fervency among its customers as Tektronix does. The venerable Oregon-based manufacturer of top-end test equipment has produced more collectible gear over the last 75 years than just about anyone else.
Over that time they have had plenty of innovations, and in the 1970s they started looking into miniaturizing their flagship oscilloscopes. The vintageTEK museum, run by current and former employees, has a review of the design process of the 200 series of portable oscilloscopes that’s really interesting. At a time when scopes were portable in the way a packed suitcase is portable, making a useful instrument in a pocketable form factor was quite a challenge — even for big pockets.
The article goes into great detail on the back-and-forth between the industrial designers, with their endless stream of models, and the engineers who would actually have to stuff a working scope into whatever case they came up with. The models from the museum’s collection are wonderful bits of history and show where the industrial designers really pushed for some innovative designs.
Some of the models are clearly derived from the design of the big bench scopes, but some have innovative flip-down covers and other interesting elements that never made it to production. Most of the models are cardboard, but some were made of aluminum in the machine shop and sport the familiar “Tek blue” livery. But the pièce de résistance of the collection is a working engineering model of what would become the 200-series of miniscopes, a handmade prototype with a tiny round CRT and crudely labeled controls.
The vintageTEK museum sounds like another bucket-list stop for computer and technology history buffs. Tek has been doing things their own way for a long time, and stopping by the museum is sure to be a treat.
Parts designed and marketed for a specific application can nevertheless still be useful in other ways, and whenever that happens, it’s probably the start of a pretty good hack. Using a sensor for something other than its intended purpose is exactly what [Zach Halvorson] did to make the Roast Vision device, which uses the MAX30101, a sealed optical sensor intended mainly for pulse oximetry and heart-rate monitoring.
[Zach] is instead using that sensor to measure the roast level of coffee beans, and assign a consistent number from 0 to 35 to represent everything from Very Dark to Very Light. Measuring a bean’s roast level is important to any roaster seeking accuracy and consistency, but when [Zach] found that commercial roast gauges could easily cost over a thousand dollars, he was sure he could do better.
[Zach] settled on using a Sparkfun MAX30101 breakout board to develop his device, and Sparkfun shared an informative blog post that demonstrates how making hardware and tools more accessible can help innovative ideas flourish. The Roast Vision device has a 3D printed enclosure, and a simple top-loading design with an integrated sample cup makes it easy to use. One simply puts about a teaspoon of finely-ground coffee into the sample cup, and the unit provides a measurement in a couple of seconds. Fortunately the sensor works just fine though an acrylic window which means the device can be sealed; a handy feature for a tool that will spend a lot of time around ground coffee.
Beau Ambur can often be found hosting hardware events and offering help all around the Bay Area. Now he’s turned it into a career and travels the west coast helping hackers and creators effectively leverage Kickstarter’s platform. Beau’s mentor session covers everything from, “is this project a good fit for venture capital?” to, “is open source a good fit for my project?”.
For this year’s Hackaday Prize we’ve found experts in a wide range of fields so you can take your entries to the next level regardless of the stage the project is in. The sessions are on a first come basis so sign up now for a chance to get some valuable feedback on your entry.
Your Robot Language Coach
The first project is a Personal English Trainer by the lonely programmer. As a student he noticed a need for a more interactive and portable language learning aid. Solutions do exist on the market but they are along the lines of a pocket dictionary, instructional phone app, or a full on translator. These break the flow of thought and conversation. The lonely programmer envisioned something that you can conversationally ask for help as you’re using a new language.
As many have discovered, the best way to see if there’s a need for something is to build a minimum viable product (MVP). The snips.ai platform offered the perfect foundation to quickly test out the idea. It’s working on a few words and he wants to get it ready for more people to play with the idea. The majority of the lonely programmer’s questions centered around making the project interesting for other hackers so that it could one day turn into a product.
Bolt-On Bike Assist
Rob and Shushanik are developing a project called BikeOn. It bolts to any bicycle and converts it to an electric assist bike without tools or replacing any components. BikeOn has already won some accolades such as Editors Choice at the last 2019 Makerfaire Bay Area. Rob had a few questions on how to transition a project from the proof of concept stage to the product stage. The discussion went over using open source as a tool for product promotion as well as getting funding for taking a hardware product to market.
He also wanted to know if there was anything the team could do to have a better shot at winning the prize. There were a few good tips such as directly focusing on the five categories the judges would be looking at: Concept, Design, Production, Benchmark, and Communication. It is also important to cover the development journey. Why did you make the choices you made when designing the project?
No-Spill Trash Can Concept
Rounding out this mentor session, Jeannie and her team of highschool students demonstrate SEAL. In the area around the Granada Hills Charter High School there are winds mighty enough to blow over full trashcans. This trash travels to the ocean and disrupts local ecosystems. The team is working on a device which can detect a tipping trashcan and keep the lid from opening.
Prototyping started with Arduinos, but they’ve already escalated to designing their own PCBs. Their hope is to produce a run of fifty devices and try them out with a local commercial partner. Beau recommended they look into the Micropython ecosystem. Not only would the students get the advantage of using the STM32 chips in their board layouts (reducing the number of support components they would need), micropython would make it easier for students to jump in and help rather than having to learn the nuances of C first.
The Hackaday Prize mentoring sessions continue through the summer so don’t forget to sign up and check out the list of mentors who are here to share their knowledge and experience.
For whatever you have built, there is someone who has done it longer, and knows more about it. That is the basic premise of expertise, and for this year’s Hackaday Prize we’re rolling out with a series of mentor sessions. These are master classes that match up experts in product development with the people behind the projects in the Hackaday Prize. We’ve been recording all of these so everyone can benefit from the advice, guidance, and mentorship presented in these fantastic recordings.
Mitch Altman is someone who should be very familiar to all Hackaday readers. He’s the inventor of the TV-B-Gone, that wonderful device that simultaneously turns you into a hero and a villain in any sports bar. He’s the President and CEO of Cornfield Electronics and co-founder of the Noisebridge hackerspace in San Francisco. Mitch is an author and teacher, and seems to be at just about every conference and workshop around the world promoting hackerspaces, Open Source hardware, and mentorship where ever he goes.
The first hardware creator to meet Mitch is Matt Bradshaw, creator of the DrumKid. This is a pocket-sized drum machine that is heavily inspired by Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operators. Years ago, Matt built a web app that generated drum tracks, and this project is simply taking that idea into the physical realm. For Mitch, this is well-tread territory; years ago, Mitch also built an Arduino-based synth, and for the most part, both Mitch and Matt’s projects are remarkably similar. There were, however, some improvements to be made with Matt’s circuit. The power supply was two AAA batteries and a switching regulator that introduced noise and added cost. Mitch suggested that the ATMega328 could be run directly from three AA batteries reducing the cost and the noise.
The next project up for review is eAgrar, a system for monitoring conditions of plants and the weather in fields. This project comes from Slaven Damjanovic and Marko Čalić. They’ve been developing this device for almost two years building the entire system around the ATMega328. Slaven ran into a problem with this chip in that he didn’t have enough inputs and outputs. The firmware is already written, but thanks to the Arduino IDE, there’s no reason to keep using that ATMega. Mitch suggested using an STM32 or another ARM core. That’s what he’s using for one of his synthesizer projects, and you get more than enough inputs and outputs for the same price as an ATMega.
Finally, we come to Joseph, with his project, the Pilates Reformer. A Pilates Reformer is a bit of exercise equipment that’s only made by three companies and everything costs thousands of dollars. Joseph is bringing that cost down, but there’s a problem: how do you build a hundred or two hundred of these? Mitch suggested simply finding another manufacturer that could build this design, and not necessarily one that builds Pilates machines. This makes sense — if all you’re doing is cutting and connecting structural beams, any manufacturer can do this, that’s what manufacturers do.
Andrew “Bunnie” Huang’s mentor session for the Hackaday Prize shows off the kind of experience and knowledge hard to come by unless you have been through the hardware development gauntlet countless times. These master-classes match up experts in product development with Prize entrants working to turn their projects into products. We’ve been recording them so that all may benefit from the advice and guidance shared in each session.
Bunnie is someone who is already familiar to most Hackaday readers. His notoriety in our community began nearly two decades ago with his work reverse engineering the original Microsoft X-box, and he quickly went on to design (and hack) the Chumby Internet appliance, he created the Novena open-source laptop, and through his writing and teaching, he provides insight into sourcing electronic manufacture in Shenzhen. He’s the mentor you want to have in your corner for a Hackaday Prize entry, and that’s just what a lucky group had in the video we’ve placed below the break.
While this session with Bunnie is in the bag it’s worth reminding you all that we are still running mentor sessions for Hackaday Prize entrants, so sign up your entry for a chance to get some great feedback about your project.
The first team to meet with Bunnie are FunKey, whose keychain Nintendo-like handheld gaming platform was inspired by a Sprite_tm project featuring a converted novelty toy. The FunKey team have produced a really well-thought-out design that is ready to be a product, but like so many of us who have reached that point they face the impossible hurdle of turning it into a product. Their session focuses on advice for finding a manufacturing partner and scaling up to production.
HotorNot Coffee Stirrer is trying to overcome a problem unique to their food-related project. A hot drink sensor that has to go in the drink itself needs to be food safe, as well as easy enough to clean between uses. A variety of components are discussed including a thermopile on a chip that has the advantage of not requiring contact with the liquid, but sometimes the simplest ideas can be the most effective as Bunnie reminds us that a cheap medical thermometer teardown can tell us a lot about appropriate parts for this application.
It’s another component choice problem that vexes PhalangePad, an input device that relies on the user tapping the inside of their fingers with their thumb. It’s a great idea, but how should these “keypresses” be detected? Would you use a capacitive or magnetic sensor, a force sensitive resistors, or maybe even machine vision? Here Bunnie’s encyclopaedic knowledge of component supply comes to the fore, and the result is a fascinating insight into the available technologies.
We all amass a huge repository of knowledge as we pass through life, some of the most valuable of which is difficult to pass on in a structured form and instead comes out as incidental insights. An engineer with exceptional experience such as Bunnie can write the book on manufacturing electronics in China but still those mere pages can only scratch the surface of what he knows about the subject. There lies the value of these mentor sessions, because among them the gems of knowledge slip out almost accidentally, and if you’re not watching, you’ll miss them.
Developing a product and getting it out there to build a business is really hard. Whether it’s a single person acting alone to push their passion to the public, or a giant corporation with vast resources, everyone has to go through the same basic steps, and everyone needs to screw those steps up in the same way.
The reality is that the whole process needs to involve lots of aspects in order to succeed; small teams fail by not considering or dedicating resources to all of those aspects, and large teams fail by not having enough communication between the teams working on those pieces. But in truth, it’s a balance of many aspects that unlock a chance at a successful product. It’s worth recognizing this balance and seeking it out in your own product development efforts, whether you’re a one-engineer juggernaut or a large, established company.