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.
The Prusa i3 MK3 is, for lack of a better word, inescapable. Nearly every hacker or tech event that I’ve attended in 2018 has had dozens of them humming away, and you won’t get long looking up 3D printing on YouTube or discussion forums without somebody singing its praises. Demand for Prusa’s latest i3 printer is so high that there’s a literal waiting list to get one.
At the time of this writing, over a year after the printer was officially put up for sale, there’s still nearly a month lead time on the assembled version. Even longer if you want to wait on the upgraded powder coated bed, which has unfortunately turned out to be a considerable production bottleneck. But the team has finally caught up enough that the kit version of the printer (minus the powder coated bed) is currently in stock and shipping next day.
I thought this was a good a time as any to pull the trigger on the kit and see for myself what all the excitement is about. Now that I’ve had the Prusa i3 MK3 up and running for a couple of weeks, I can say with confidence that it’s not just hype. It isn’t a revolution in desktop 3D printing, but it’s absolutely an evolution, and almost certainly represents the shape of things to come for the next few years.
That said, it isn’t perfect. There’s still a few elements of the design that left me scratching my head a bit, and some parts of the assembly weren’t quite as smooth as the rest. I’ve put together some of those observations below. This isn’t meant to be a review of the Prusa i3 MK3 printer, there’s more than enough of those already, but hopefully these assorted notes may be of use to anyone thinking of jumping on the Prusa bandwagon now that production has started really ramping up.
The Hackaday Prize invites everyone to focus on specific challenges with encouragement of prize money and motivation of deadlines. But what happens after the award ceremony? While some creators are happy just to share their ideas, many projects need to get into the real world to make their full impact. Several past prize winners have used their award as seed money to start production and go into business. Recognizing this as something worth supporting, a new addition this year is Tindie’s Project to Product program.
Tindie is a marketplace for makers to sell to other makers, hence a natural place for Hackaday.io projects to find an audience. (And many have found success doing so.) For Project to Product, two Hackaday Prize semifinalists will receive support from mentors to transition their hand crafted project into something that can be produced in quantity. In addition to engineering support, there’s also funding (above and beyond their prize winnings) towards their first production run. In exchange, Tindie asks for the first production run to be sold exclusively on Tindie marketplace.
Of course, some entries are ahead of the curve and already available on Tindie, like Reflowduino and Hexabitz. We know there are more creators with ambition to do the same, putting in effort cleaning up their design and sorting out their BOM (Bill of Materials) towards production. They’ve done a lot of work, and we hope Tindie can give them that final push. They see their invention become reality, Tindie gets cool new exclusive products for the marketplace, and the rest of us can buy some to play with. Everyone wins.
If this sounds like something you want to join in as a creator, there’s still time. The final Musical Instrument Challenge is accepting entries for one more week. Better hurry!
(Disclaimeroo: Supplyframe, which owns Hackaday and is a sponsor of the Prize, also owns Tindie.)