Manufacturing guy-at-large.

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Failure to iterate

Added on by Spencer Wright.

For context, read Ben Einstein's very smart post, "The Real Reason Why Quirky Failed."

Quirky had two classes of customer.

As Ben describes, Quirky sold pieces of hardware to one class of customer. I was one of them - I bought a few of their products (and generally disliked them) a few years back. And as Ben accurately noted, those products were often poorly supported and maintained. Which sucked for those customers.

But Quirky also sold a second product, in the form of product execution services & royalties. The customers of this product were people with ideas, and those customers "paid" Quirky by giving them the right to develop, manufacture, and distribute those ideas. 

I believe that Quirky's key failing was that that second product never got market fit. In other words: As a person with an idea for a hardware product, it just never made sense to give up the rights to that idea in exchange for product execution services & royalties.

I bring a few pieces of supporting evidence for this claim:

  • First, anecdotally: While Quirky was in business, I had a few (passable) ideas for products that I didn't have the bandwidth to execute - and I didn't give them to Quirky. And when I had a pretty good idea for a product, I didn't even consider Quirky as an option - opting instead for Kickstarter, which provided me with *much* more value in return.
  • Second: As evidenced by the fact that Quirky halved their royalty structure in early 2015, we know that they struggled to figure out how the economics of that product really worked.
  • Third, compare the paths of Quirky and Kickstarter. Both of their business models necessarily requires people to have ideas, and to give up some part of those ideas in exchange for help getting them off the ground. But while top tier Kickstarter creators (see Pebble, 99 Percent Invisible, countless others) have in many cases made their second and third campaigns *way* bigger than their first, Quirky creators never had that kind of follow-on success - or never attempted it in the first place.

I believe that this - exchanging ideas for execution and royalties - was Quirky's primary product. They were, to be sure, very proud of that fact: Kaufman repeatedly said things like "The mission of what we do is to make invention accessible to people all around the world." Nothing about the best coffee maker, or air conditioner, or flashlight: Quirky's primary product was invention services, and they would live or die based on the extent to which they convinced people to give them good ideas. But they failed to iterate on this product, and it never attained product-market-fit. And so no matter how successful their [insert consumer product here] was, that disconnect would ultimately have killed them regardless.

McMaster-Carr and the Future of Parts

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Last year, I wrote a post describing my feature requirements for a modern parts management system. Re-reading it today, I realize that it doesn't really say what the user interaction would feel like - or how it would work at all. I hope to provide some of that here.

The key is this: Integrate small parts inventory management into the product design, prototyping, and maintenance, repair & operations processes. I'll treat these as three separate use cases, though they're all part of the same product lifecycle.

The reader will note that I believe McMaster-Carr to be the strongest positioned organization to take on these tasks. As a longtime fan of McMaster and a student of their intense customer focus, beautiful interface design, and impressive supply chain management, I hope that they seriously consider these recommendations - as I'm sure that their competitors will be soon.

Note: I diagrammed an early version of this idea in a flowchart here.

My current "system," during prototyping on  The Public Radio.

My current "system," during prototyping on The Public Radio.

During Design

As a hardware product designer, I want my suppliers' parts catalogs integrated into my design environment, so that I can seamlessly browse for new parts and view part data directly from my modeling software.

Autodesk Inventor is my go-to design software, and McMaster-Carr is my go-to parts supplier. I'm constantly browsing McM for a part, then adding it to an open order, then downloading the STEP file and importing that into my model. I consider this a luxury: McM's decision to include STEPs for the vast majority of their mechanical parts makes my job a ton easier. But the process is convoluted, and a lot of part data is lost. On parts like socket cap screws, for instance, McM tracks the following data:

  • Thread size
  • Length
  • Thread length
  • Material
  • Package quantity
  • Package price

But their STEP files contain none of that; all that's included is the part number and the material, which is often stripped of a lot of useful data (parts described as "Type 316 Stainless Steel" on McMaster's site often show up as either "Stainless" - or worse, "Generic" - in the STEP file).

For McMaster-Carr to become more fully integrated into my design and procurement process, they should include comprehensive part data in all of their STEP files. 

Moreover, there's a larger opportunity for McMaster to integrate their catalog directly into my design environment. If their catalog were available as a plugin for Inventor/Solidworks, designers could browse, design, and purchase all from one seamless interface - which I believe they will demand in the near future. Look at Plethora and Sunstone Circuits (and in web development, Squarespace) - across the hardware world, the movement is towards integrating design & supply chain management. McMaster-Carr is perfectly positioned to become a powerful player in the field. 

During Prototyping

As a prototyping mechanic, I want real-time internet enabled inventory management, so that I can understand what parts I have on hand & prepare for shortages before they happen.

Small parts management sucks. With their lightning-quick delivery and vast catalog, McMaster is the cornerstone of most prototyping shops' parts management system. But that solution is awkward at best, and often requires simply ordering more parts, even if we have some (somewhere) on hand. 

Small scale inventory management has historically been extremely difficult, but today it's increasingly easy. For instance, Quirky has shown us that it's not that hard to keep track of the number of eggs you have in your fridge, and Tesla's iOS app shows the charge state of your car's battery. It's only a matter of time before the same is the case with things throughout our physical lives, and McMaster-Carr is uniquely positioned to take small parts management on.

I envision a small parts cabinet full of sensors (some combination of force, optical, or proximity), which would periodically update an online database as to the quantity of parts inside each bin. But you needn't even start there. An easy MVP would be an iOS app that allowed the user to snap a photo of a small parts cabinet and tag each bin with a part number & quantity. The photos would be collected and stored online, and would be linked to the customer's McM order history. 

Then, when a mechanic takes a handful of bolts out of a drawer, all he needs to do is update the inventory count from his app. By tapping around a set of linked photos in the app, he's directed to the bin that he's physically looking at - and he can confirm visually that the parts are what they appear to be. By tapping on an "info" tab, he brings up the inventory data (including links to a 3D part file, technical data, order dates, and a list of mating parts/assemblies that the part has been used in - culled from the Inventor plugin described above) and assign a piece count to a job & edit quantity on hand in moments.

McMaster-Carr should build this system - starting with an iOS app that offers basic inventory management. Doing so would give them a view into their customers' usage data, and would help users streamline their restocking process. The days of bins labeled with bits of paper are numbered, and users will soon demand personalized (and internet-enabled) inventory management systems. McMaster is in a unique position in the marketplace, and has the opportunity - if they work now - to strengthen their foothold in small parts management.


As a maintenance, repair & operations engineer, I want a single process that incorporates machine data, relevant spare parts, and procurement, so that I can get my facility back online more quickly.

A large part of McMaster-Carr's business is in supporting maintenance, repair & operations (MRO) professionals. These customers have unique needs; their ability to get the right part, right now, can have huge impacts on their company's ability to recover from unplanned downtime due to a broken machine.

In many cases, MRO engineers will find themselves with a broken part and will need to replace it immediately. Doing so will require careful measurement to determine the part's specifications, a process that can be difficult and imprecise - especially if the broken part has been mangled and/or lost.

McMaster should work to establish a system of folksonomy - user contributed data - that would allow MRO customers to tag parts with information about how and where they can be used. For instance, a particular serpentine belt might be commonly used as a replacement spindle drive belt on an old lathe. Instead of finding this data on the web - and then cross referencing part numbers back to the McMaster-Carr catalog - a tag could be submitted to the relevant part directly in the McM database. Subsequent users could then find the information they need right in the McM website/app.

Such a system would be complicated, for sure. It would require a significant effort on McM's part to hire and train community managers, who would monitor and vet user submitted data on a daily basis. But doing so would allow McMaster to leverage the huge - and growing - network of hardware professionals and enthusiasts. This community is sorely lacking a single go-to reference, and McMaster is in many ways the strongest candidate (with its enormous existing database of part, material & process data) to do so.

In order to pull off these tasks, I believe McMaster-Carr will need to become more transparent about their processes and inventory data. This will be a difficult process - I myself struggle with transparency - but I believe the payoff will be well worth it. A new generation of hardware professionals & hackers have come of age in a new information paradigm, and they are increasingly responsible for purchasing decisions in small and large companies alike. These people have grown up reading Amazon's shareholder letters and following the official Google tech blog. They expect to be part of a company's product development process, and will contribute their own time, energy, and expertise to projects that historically would have been developed in private. McMaster-Carr - with its huge network of enthusiastic users - should leverage that collective energy, and work with its customers to bring parts management into the 21st century.

Not ready for the Spotlight

Added on by Spencer Wright.

I ordered my Quirky Spotter on 2013.11.29. I received it on 2013.12.09, and plugged it in immediately. It remained plugged in but mostly inactive for all of December.

On 2013.12.23, I looked at the "Light" settings and noticed that Spotter had *never* seen any light, even though it had been sitting in my room - next to a window that gets direct sunlight - for about two weeks. 


I noted the weirdness, but didn't change the alarm setting. I then went out of town for a few days, and was surprised a few days later to see this:


It looks like I've got a few issues here. First, I'm guessing that the light sensor and its supporting hardware are indeed functional. The first problem would then be somewhere on either the firmware of the device, or on Wink's backend, or possibly on the Wink iOS app (though that seems unlikely). 

Second, Wink obviously has no idea what it means for a light to be turned on. All of these notifications happened when nobody was in my house, and I'm betting that ambient light at the Spotter was pretty consistent across these readings. So why is Wink sending me multiple notifications?

The net effect is that Spotter is pre-MVP - it's not really viable. I am the owner of a highly sophisticated piece of hardware, which can communicate with a slick iOS app, but whose supporting system infrastructure (the firmware and/or backend) simply isn't mission ready.

For obvious reasons I find this really disappointing. I had been hoping that Spotter would offer a few big improvements over Twine, which I also own. But Quirky is a fast-paced company, and they've sold me a product that - despite the encouraging anecdotes on their blog - just isn't trustworthy.

Lastly, I give you this:

Here, the organizational differences between Apple and Quirky strike me. Quirky thinks that the product stories will validate crappy execution. Apple, instead, has an ingrained (if delusional) belief in the superiority of their products, and that belief is shared throughout their company.

Home Depot, on the other hand, has neither story nor supposed superiority. They sell commoditized products and low-spec tools to a customer base that either doesn't know what they're buying or doesn't care. Their employees usually lack the training to give reliable recommendations, and their store layout - something that Apple spends a lot of time thinking about - is totally non-imageable (cf. Kevin A. Lynch, The Image of the City). 

Just because Home Depot sells "smart" products doesn't make them an advanced retail operation. And as I've experienced, Wink's "smartness" is questionable.

Note: Prior to writing this, I posted some photos on twitter and got a response - on Christmas Day - from Quirky Help. While I appreciate their assistance, I am nonetheless disappointed with the out-of-the-box performance of this high profile product... and its performance has remained, er, consistent. This taken today:


3D Printing: One part of a New Paradigm

Added on by Spencer Wright.

I often have the urge to cut-and-paste an email I've written onto a blog post.  Ideas mull around in my head, and it's often the case that an email chain prompts me to finally compose the thoughts that I've been meaning to get down for months. 

This morning, I had cause to write a message regarding the questions I have about 3D printing, and managed to nail down a few points that I've been working through recently. 

Note: I would be remiss not to mention the sources of much of my thinking: 

As a hardware product manager, I've sourced 3D printed parts (SLA, mostly) on a few occasions in order to prove out basic functionality. As a prototyping tool, it's been very useful to me (notwithstanding the value that inexpensive CNC prototyping shops like offer). As a manufacturing technology, though, I'm a little less impressed with 3D printing, especially because the industry seems most interested in replacing inexpensive injection molded consumer products with their FDM analogs. As SLS/SLA models become more cost effective and - more importantly - easier to procure, I suspect that the cost-benefit will shift, and I'll begin to see more 3D printed objects in my personal life.  

But the model for producing those parts is far from settled, and I'm most interested in how the big players (I figure that Shapeways, Kinkos, and Amazon are probably best situated) will integrate the entire manufacturing process: 

  • Design (cf. Quirky; the current proliferation of hardware crowdfunding & acceleration programs)
  • 3D printing (SLA/SLS, and *limited* FDM) 
  • Secondary operations (namely drilling/tapping)
  • Assembly (monolithic consumer objects are boring; it'll only be once 3D printing is integrated with fasteners, wiring, electronics, etc. that it becomes really interesting)
  • Distribution (ten days to ship a Shapeways model just isn't sustainable)

In short, I'm interested not in 3D printing itself, but in a new paradigm for product development, manufacturing, and distribution. My work background is in traditional manufacturing, where information systems tend to be closed and resistant to change, and I'm particularly interested in hearing people's opinions about how, over what timescale, and by what means these tendencies are likely to change.

When to give up your product

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Product ideas are free, and if you put any effort at all into finding them, they're strikingly easy to come up with.  I keep a list of product ideas that's pages long, and I try to be open about sharing them with friends and potential collaborators.  However, there's always the protective instinct there - I don't want to give my ideas out to just anyone, especially if I think they might actually do something with them.

In the past few months, I've been particularly interested in developing new ideas, and have enjoyed talking to anyone else about their own visions.  I try to keep an open mind when talking startup shop; it's more fun, for sure, to listen to someone's half-baked pitch with enthusiasm.  I think it's also important to be delicate when following up on an idea that strikes me as a good one.  Intruding on someone else's project can be dangerous, and I try to be careful to not overstep on a friend's personal flame.  In particular, it's important to not try to change the focus of an idea.  From personal experience, I know it's all too easy to become protective over what one sees as the core idea of an product, and if someone uses my idea's shell but replaces the seed (the metaphor is a bit of a stretch, sorry), my reaction tends to be defensive.

It strikes me that despite the proliferation of high quality snark surrounding Hyperloop, Elon Musk has made an impressively brave decision in releasing his idea to the public.  It takes real guts to put what, by many accounts, is a totally harebrained idea into the ether.  

My own ambitions are admittedly smaller.  My product list includes a handful of blatant ripoffs (ostensibly with small design improvements, but whatever), lots of generic furniture/EDC items, and is generally full of stuff that's been pretty well picked over.  A good portion of my list wouldn't pass the "market need" test.  There are more well designed LED flashlights out there than I could shake a stick at; if I haven't found one that's perfect for my needs and meets my aesthetic requirements, that's because I haven't googled hard enough for it.

In the end, a product idea will sink or swim partially on the creators' ability to create a successful marketing platform.  Doing so allows otherwise uninteresting product ideas to flourish (this is, IMHO and with no offense intended, how Best Made Co. works).   If your product is generic (e.g., an off-the-shelf axe with a painted handle)  and relies on an iconic brand image to succeed, then you have nothing to worry from someone else taking your idea.  

Ditto if, on the other hand, your product is too large or complex for you to pull off alone.  Hyperloop falls into this category.  Musk himself is likely too overworked to launch it himself, and anyway would need municipal support that he can't get alone. 

From my own list: I want to build a public database of parts - an API that would aggregate specifications from suppliers like Digikey and McMaster-Carr, with a web interface that would allow users to manage the parts they have on hand in their own shops.  I see it as an ecosystem for managing inventory and procurement, with IoT opportunities that could change the way that workshops, R&D labs, and warehouses deal with parts on hand.  It's a project that's too big for me to take on alone, and if someone builds it while I'm busy boning up on the skills required to complete a small part of it - well, all's fair.  

The harder ideas to give up, for me, are the ones that make a big dent in a small workflow in my life.  For years, I've lamented the sad state of laundry hampers.  I want a hamper to be architectural, and to be made from materials that I'd find elsewhere in my home.  I want it to stand on its own, but fold down quickly for trips to the laundromat.  And most of all, I want *one* all-purpose device; I see no need to use one container for in-closet storage and another for transport.

Hamper Assy.jpg

A few years ago, I sketched up an idea for a hamper that fit my specifications.  It's something that I'm fairly well qualified to build, and wouldn't cost more than $100 in parts and a few hours of my labor to complete.  But it remains on my backlog, and it'll likely be there forever. 

What do competent, driven designers do with projects like this?  Presumably, Quirky was built for just this use case: something that could be a decent idea, but which I just don't have the bandwidth to move forward on a meaningful timescale.  But to hand over my baby, however half-baked she is, to Quirky's "design experts?"  The whole idea just hurts a little bit.  It's silly, but I want the product to be *mine,* whether or not it ever gets built. 

Optimally, I think each of us needs a network of collaborators - people who we can work with, for, and against (against is important) in the pursuit of something shippable.  Immediate feedback and real, honest enthusiasm are things that Quirky (and Kickstarter, for that matter) isn't very good at, and to many people those are important parts of the design and development process.  I'm constantly working on expanding my product development network, but I'll admit that it's still far from where it want to be.  And more importantly, my skills at communicating with someone about product ideas - both theirs and mine - are crude, and anyway the ideas that I can bring to the table are mostly harebrained.

How do other designers deal with these issues?  I'd love feedback, or simply to connect.  


more thoughts on Quirky and supplier identity

Added on by Spencer Wright.

this evening i was lucky enough to run into Jordan Husney at the NY Hardware Startups Meetup.  before the panel discussion started, i picked his brain about a few of the ideas i've been mulling, and Quirky came up.  i touched briefly on their business model, which i have been thinking about, and Jordan quickly corrected me: Quirky outsources idea generation, not design.

it wasn't until i got home that the relevant question about that distinction struck me: is idea generation something that needed to be revolutionized? 

this is an interesting question.  as i understand Shapeways' model, they mean to crowdsource both idea generation and design, and focus on being a marketplace between designers, manufacturers and consumers.  Quirky employs their own designers, and leverages their expertise to rapidly develop ideas that they cull from a community of "inventors."  from their FAQ page:

Q: What's the benefit of posting my idea [on Quirky]? Why not go do it on my own?
A: By all means, go build what you want to build! Our main jam is that it can be hard to do it on your own… or at least in our experience it was. And it can cost a lot, which sometimes means tricking your parents into remortgaging their house (cough, cough, Ben). But we’ve got an expert design staff, established manufacturing relationships, and a rock star sales and marketing team, plus all the tools and resources to get that idea out of your head and onto shelves. So if you’re willing to risk $10 for your killer idea, it’s totally worth it.

Quirky is definitely onto something here.  they've identified a difficulty that has spawned a number of product development consulting firms (Dragon Innovation, MakeSimply, and PCH come to mind).  interestingly, though, their services include two fields that are much touted to be going through a massive democratization: 3d design and prototyping.  if these processes indeed are becoming increasingly accessible to normal people, and if Dragon et al handle everything from final prototyping to vendor management to supply chain logistics, then what exactly differentiates Quirky?

for one, they're a one-stop shop.  for two, they have their own distribution platform.  it's different from Kickstarter, where the designer can build real relationships with end users; the relationship is instead with Quirky, whose shopping experience feels highly curated.

but the process is streamlined, too.  compare Quirky's "Pluck" with "Yolkr" on Kickstarter.  the two products themselves are hardly differentiated at all.  Pluck spent 3 months in development and has been in Quirky's store since december of 2012.  it has sold over 10k units, grossing $134k for Quirky and netting its inventor just under $13k (including his $10 fee for posting to Quirky).  Yolkr was launched in january of 2013; its 60 day campaign ended in march.  it raised about $63k, and despite its estimated March ship date, has not yet done so.

comparing the two, i'm not sure which i like better; but ultimately that's irrelevant.  the real question is which will be better suited to adapting to a dynamic marketplace - which is exactly what both companies will certainly be required to do.

supplier identity

Added on by Spencer Wright.

recently i've been interviewing at, and thinking a lot about, a handful of companies that are involved in new and interesting ways of delivering product (both physical and digital) to customers.  in previous phases of my career, i've been intimately involved in both product development, customer relations, and physical manufacturing.  but this is a largely outdated model.  there's been a lot of innovation in the product development & delivery process recently (take Quirky, Kickstarter and Shapeways as easy examples), and it's certain that we haven't seen the end of this trend.

this excerpt from McKinsey's recent post about the Internet of Things and manufacturing sums much of it up:

Markus Löffler: With these radical changes looming, who has the best chance of controlling the profit pool—those with the production technology or those who own the assets?
Siegfried Dais: I would take a step back and ask, in the mind of the consumer, who represents the final product? The designer? The manufacturer? Or the person who created the contract with the customer for the final product?
Andreas Tschiesner: Right. This takes us into the field of contract manufacturing.
Siegfried Dais: Design companies have already separated design and production. They create products or solutions for customers but do not produce them; they simply provide the specifications to contract manufacturers, who then handle production. This trend of separating design and production will continue to spread across other industries and sectors.

this back and forth brings up a few really interesting questions.  i tend to think that it's beneficial (to stakeholders, team members, and consumers/users alike) for the product development process to be undertaken by a cross-functional team.  but there are undeniable positive effects from task specialization.  

Quirky, Kickstarter and Shapeways have all taken different approaches to defining their role in the development process.  as a consumer, i find Kickstarter to be the most appealing: i accept that they're just a platform, and put responsibility for the project's completion squarely on the creator.  Quirky is a bit more confused to me.  i have less experience with their products, but the ones i've used (their SOLO coat hanger) left much to be desired.  and i blame Quirky - not the crowd from whom they sourced the design - for the failure.  Shapeways' business model is confusing to me as well.  i have used their services for prototyping (to great success), but have little interest in their product shopping experience.

with all of the talk about how 3d printing will revolutionize manufacturing, it's great to hear an intelligent conversation about how it's really advances in distributed, efficient product development & delivery (brought about by IoT, crowdsourcing technologies, and new manufacturing processes - including 3d printing) that will be most impactful.