Making something that has to get into others’ hands involves solving a lot of different problems, many of which have nothing at all to do with actually building the dang things. [Conor Patrick] encountered them when he ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for an open-source USB security key that was not only shipped to backers, but also made available as an ongoing product for sale. There was a lot of manual and tedious work that could have been avoided, and so [Conor] laid out all the things he wishes he had done when first setting up a product line.
If the whole process is a river, then the more “upstream” an issue is, the bigger its potential impact on everything that comes afterwards. One example is the product itself: the simplest and most easily managed product line is one that has only one product with no variations. That not only minimizes errors but makes supply, production, and shipping more straightforward. Striving for a minimum number of products and variations is also an example of something [Conor] didn’t do. In their crowdfunding campaign they offered the SoloKeys USB device — an implementation of the FIDO2 authentication token — as either USB-A or USB-C. There were also two types of key: NFC-capable (for tapping to a smartphone) and USB only. That is four products so far.
Offering keys in an unlocked state for those who want to tamper makes it eight different products. On top of that, they offered color choices which not only adds complexity to production, but also makes it harder to keep track of what everyone ordered. [Conor] also observed that the Kickstarter platform and back end are really not set up like a store, and it is clunky at best to try to offer (and manage) different products and variations from within it.
Another major point is fulfillment and in [Conor]’s opinion, unless the quantities are small, an order fulfillment company is worth partnering with. He says there are a lot of such companies out there, and it can be very time consuming to find the right one, but it will be nothing compared to the time and effort needed to handle, package, address, and ship several hundreds (or thousands!) of orders personally. His team did their own fulfillment for a total of over 2000 units, and found it a long and tedious process filled with hidden costs and challenges.
Many of us are happy to spend hours cooking up a solution that saves us seconds, if success means never having to do a hated task again. [frankensteinhadason] molds enough silicone parts that he grew tired of all the manual labor involved, so he built a silicone injector to do it for him. Now, all he has to do is push the handle in notch by notch, until silicone starts oozing from the vent holes in the mold.
The mold pictured above is designed to make little shrouds for helicopter communications connections like this one. His friends in the industry like them so much that he decided to sell them, and needed to scale up production as a result. Now he can make six at once.
He designed brackets to hold a pair of syringes side by side against a backplane. There’s a lever that pushes both plungers simultaneously, and adapters that keep the tubing secured to the syringe nozzles. Ejected two-part silicone travels down to a double-barrel mixing nozzle, which extrudes silicone into the top of the mold.
Naturally, we were going to suggest automating the lever operation, but [frankensteinhadason] is already scheming to do that with steppers and an Arduino. Right now he’s working on increasing the hose diameter for faster flow, which will mean changes to the adapter. Once that is sorted, he plans to post the STLs and a video of it pumping silicone.
There are a few common lessons that get repeated by anyone who takes on the task of assembling a few hundred PCBs, but there are also unique insights to be had. [DominoTree] shared his takeaways after making a couple hundred electronic badges for DEFCON 26 (that’s the one before the one that just wrapped up, if anyone’s keeping track.) [DominoTree] assembled over 200 Telephreak badges and by the end of it he had quite a list of improvements he wished he had made during the design phase.
Some tips are clearly sensible, such as adding proper debug and programming interfaces, or baking an efficient test cycle into the firmware. Others are not quite so obvious, for example “add a few holes to your board.” Holes can be useful in unexpected ways and cost essentially zero. Even if the board isn’t going to be mounted to anything, a few holes can provide a way to attach jigs or other hardware like test fixtures.
Other advice is more generic but no less important, as with “eliminate as many steps as possible.” Almost anything adds up to a significant chunk of time when repeated hundreds of times. To the basement hacker, something such as pre-cut and pre-tinned wires might seem like a shameful indulgence. But cutting, stripping, tinning, then hand-soldering a wire adds up to significant time and effort by iteration number four hundred (that’s two power wires per badge) even if one isn’t staring down a looming deadline.
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.
It may not be every hardware hacker’s dream, but a fair number of us harbor fantasies of thinking up the Next Big Thing and kissing the day job goodbye forever. It’s an understandable dream and a laudable goal, but as they say, a goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline. What’s your plan for turning your project into a marketable product? Chances are good you don’t have one, and if you ever expect to get to your goal you’re going to need one.
Shawn Hymel is an engineer who led several marketing campaigns for Spark Fun and recently shared his thoughts on marketing with attendees of the first-ever KiCon conference in Chicago. He’ll be dropping by the Hack Chat to talk about everything you ever wanted to know about marketing your hardware projects but were afraid to ask.
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.
It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to assume that anyone reading Hackaday regularly has at least progressed to the point where they can connect an LED to a microcontroller and get it to blink without setting anything on fire. We won’t even chastise you for not doing it with a 555 timer. It’s also not a stretch to say if you can successfully put together the “Hello World” of modern electronics on a breadboard, you’re well on the way to adding a few more LEDs, some sensors, and a couple buttons to that microcontroller and producing something that might come dangerously close to a useful gadget. Hardware hacking sneaks up on you like that.
Here’s where it gets tricky: how many of us are still stuck at that point? Don’t be shy, there’s no shame in it. A large chunk of the “completed” projects that grace these pages are still on breadboards, and if we had to pass on every project that still had a full-on development board like the Arduino or Wemos D1 at its heart…well, let’s just say it wouldn’t be pretty.
Of course, if you’re just building something as a personal project, there’s often little advantage to having a PCB spun up or building a custom enclosure. But what happens when you want to build more than one? If you’ve got an idea worth putting into production, you’ve got to approach the problem with a bit more finesse. Especially if you’re looking to turn a profit on the venture.
At the recent WOPR Summit in Atlantic City, there were a pair of presentations which dealt specifically with taking your hardware designs to the next level. Russell Handorf and Mike Kershaw hosted an epic four hour workshop called Strategies for your Projects: Concept to Prototype and El Kentaro gave a fascinating talk about his design process called Being Q: Designing Hacking Gadgets which together tackled both the practical and somewhat more philosophical aspects of building hardware for an audience larger than just yourself.
While it might be tempting to start soldering a circuit together once the design looks good on paper, experience tells us that it’s still good to test it out on a breadboard first to make sure everything works properly. That might be where the process ends for one-off projects, but for large production runs you’re going to need to test all the PCBs after they’re built, too. While you would use a breadboard for prototyping, the platform you’re going to need for quality control is called a “bed of nails“.
This project comes to us by way of [Thom] who has been doing a large production run of circuits meant to drive nixie tubes. After the each board is completed, they are laid on top of a number of pins arranged to mate to various points on the PCB. Without needing to use alligator clamps or anything else labor-intensive to test, this simple jig with all the test points built-in means that each board can be laid on the bed and tested to ensure it works properly. The test bed looks like a bed of nails as well, hence the name.
There are other ways of testing PCBs after production, too, but if your board doesn’t involve any type of processing they might be hard to implement. Nixie tubes are mostly in the “analog” realm so this test setup works well for [Thom]’s needs.