Manufacturing guy-at-large.

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Why it's sixty dollars

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Note: If you’re reading this in the 2018 holiday season, use code “WHYITS60” to get The Public Radio for its mid-2017 price of $39. Happy holidays :)

Recently The Public Radio, the FM radio that I co-created, rather unceremoniously instituted a 33% retail price hike. It was a tough decision to make, and one that felt both like a capitulation and an experiment. It came about four and a half years after we first launched the product, and about a year after we relaunched it with the intention of building a sustainable, US-based supply chain. In other words, it was pretty late in the product’s life cycle to be making such a drastic change - something I thought a lot about.

For those who haven’t fully thought through what it would mean to manufacture consumer electronics in the US - and for those who’ve idly contended that we live in an age of mass customization - I offer my experiences.

How our supply chain works

Like all consumer electronics, many of the components (microprocessors, passives, electro-mechanical components) in The Public Radio are either only made in China or simply not practical to purchase from the US. For instance, the FM receiver module we use is marketed by a US company (Silicon Labs) but made in China, and even the worlds largest electronics brands would have little power to change that. Similarly our speaker could theoretically be made in the US, but to do so would effectively kill our cost structure, probably moving the radio’s retail price well above $100 from an already expensive $60.

As a result, there are only a handful of physical components which we source from the US: The mason jar that the radio is housed in (purchased from Newell Brands, which has a license on the iconic Ball jar product line) and our custom cardboard box, which is only cost effective when purchased within ~100 miles of where the radio’s final assembly occurs. We’ve seriously considered changing jars to a Chinese made version, which would probably result in a 50% price cut on that component, but the scale of our production didn’t warrant it. And besides, being able to order a few thousand jars at a time is quite appealing in contrast to the 10-20,000 unit orders that an overseas supplier would require.

Our assembly labor, however, is in the US and accounts for roughly half of our cost of goods sold. Our excellent assembly partner (Worthington Assembly) produces printed circuit board assemblies in batches of 324 (36 panels of 9 PCBs each; this number ends up working nicely with the trays we store the radios in). They then use those PCBAs, plus three mechanical components which we supply them with, to create mechanical assemblies which sit in inventory until a customer places an order. At that point a mechanical assembly is taken off of a shelf and programmed to the FM frequency the customer requested. It undergoes a full functional test and is put in the mail - typically less than a day after an order is placed. See this blog post for a more detailed description.

In other words: We’re making a piece of consumer electronics just-in-time in the US.

I can’t stress how unusual this is; it’s simply not how things are done. Most consumer electronics rely intensely on the supply chains of the Pearl River Delta - the same places where our speaker, battery clips, knob, and potentiometer (and likely a number of other tertiary components) are made. They’re made in batches between 10,000 and a million, and are then containerized and shipped to large fulfillment centers in places like Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley and Chino, CA. There they sit, sealed in their retail packaging until someone places an order. And when that happens, a relatively low-skilled worker picks it off a shelf and puts it in a box.

As appealing as this may sound, it isn’t a realistic option for The Public Radio. TPR is customized to one of about 300 possible FM frequencies, and unless we were willing to purchase a huge stock of pre-programmed radios (with more of the popular frequencies, just like T-shirt makers buy more medium and large sizes than XXXL) it just wasn’t practical to assemble it in China. A few proposals that we considered:

  1. Assemble un-programmed radios in China, put them in boxes, and ship them to the US; then use a contactless programming method to program the FM frequency at a US fulfillment center. This isn’t crazy, and Josh created a pretty impressive technical demonstration. But finding a fulfillment partner was problematic, and switching to this process would effectively prohibit us from doing the laser marking that our radio station customers love so much.

  2. Do partial assembly in China (mechanical assemblies only - no jars or boxes) and do the rest in the US. Similar to #1, finding a fulfillment house was an issue - and the laser marking would have been tricky as well. Additionally, we’d be stuck using expensive US-made mason jars, keeping our COGS high while requiring a bunch of additional work on our part.

  3. Just add a tuning knob, turning the product from “a single channel radio in a mason jar” to “a mason jar radio.” This is a fair suggestion, but one that (for philosophical reasons) didn’t make sense for us.

In summary, The Public Radio is a relatively rare example of a consumer electronics product whose supply chain relies heavily on the greater Shenzhen ecosystem but then is assembled and fulfilled completely from the US. We’re proud of this fact, but have been pragmatic (as opposed to idealistic) about how our supply chain operates. So with that in mind: How exactly does The Public Radio end up as a $60 product?

Where the money goes

So, here are the big takeaways:

  • Our cost of goods sold has varied a little over the past year, but it’s currently around $18.54.

  • 75% of our cost of goods sold goes to US vendors, and the majority of that stays in the US.

  • About 50% of our cost of goods sold goes towards assembly labor. Part of this is automated (pick and place PCBA) but more than half is hand assembly.

  • The two most expensive components in our BOM are:

    • Our speaker, at $2.35/ea, accounts for 12.68% of our COGS. This is manufactured in Dongguan (see here for photos of the facility) and is custom for us.

    • Our FM receiver module, at $1.53/ea, accounts for 8.26% of our COGS. This is a standard component from Silicon Labs, and I’m told that its claim to fame is that it was part of the original iPod Nano. This is probably the first component on our list to replace, as there are certainly less expensive chips options with all the options we’d need.

The broader story is that at our scale (5-10,000 units per year), consumer electronics is expensive. Purchases at that level simply don’t bring much leverage, and our just-in-time production model ends up being expensive on a per-minute basis (partly due to switching costs).

Here are the raw(er) numbers:

COGS by vendor location

How you sell a product with an $18 COGS

Back in 2014, we sold our first few units for $45 direct to consumers. Our first Kickstarter sold radios for $48/ea with shipping (about $5 our cost) included. In our second Kickstarter, we dropped the price to $39/ea and then charged shipping separately.

In mid 2017 we got our first retail account and listed The Public Radio for $45/ea. We set up drop shipping terms with a wholesale price of $33.75, a price that was intended to give equal margins to us and our retailers.

Sadly for us, this arrangement failed to gain traction. We got about as many 2017 holiday orders as we had hoped for (and about as many as we could have handled; see here for more history, including the ~1000 radios that I personally assembled and shipped from my basement on nights & weekends), but per the section above it became evident that we would need to increase our volumes significantly to make the numbers work out at a $45 price point. And while we maintain 4.9 star reviews on Uncommon Goods, the process of signing up large drop-ship accounts is simply a new skill, and one that hasn’t so far aligned well with our operating model.

So, we increased our prices. On the one hand this sounds crazy - we had a relatively successful product that we wanted to sell more of; the typical answer to that scenario is probably not to charge more for it. But the price increase allowed us to offer keystone pricing to brick-and-mortar retailers, and it gave drop-ship retailers significantly more margin to play with - making us a better partner for them as well.

In the meantime, we doubled down on direct-to-consumer sales. This also is a new skill, but I’m happy to say that since our price increase, we’ve managed to more than double both our direct-to-consumer revenue and our direct-to-consumer sales volume; in other words, we’re selling more units and making more money off of each sale.

Looking ahead

Every time I look back at The Public Radio, I marvel at just how much work has gone into it. It now runs as a well oiled machine; we’ve invested heavily in order processing & inventory management automation, and have structured our vendor & customer relationships in ways that allow us to produce a piece of consumer electronics as a side job. And in spite of (or perhaps because of) a fair dose of uncertainty early in 2018, it’s now clear that this will be a profitable year for us.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done, and I continue to wonder whether there are fundamental changes we could make to allow our US based supply chain to thrive even more. I’m lucky to have been able to explore this kind of manufacturing as much as I have thus far; I look forward to more of it in the next year.

Flying probe testing

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This is an old video, but I only recently learned of it: The Public Radio's printed circuit board undergoing flying probe testing at the board house in 2015. 

Our design has changed quite a bit since then - the circular PCB was for some reason hard for us to get away from, but its current rounded-octagon shape is much more space efficient. Thanks to Chris @ Worthington Assembly for sending this over!

Looking for a freelance Ruby developer

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Centerline Labs, the company I cofounded with Zach Dunham, is looking for a freelance Ruby developer to help improve our automated order & inventory management system.

I have written extensively (1, 2, 3) about our system ("The Coordinator") on this blog and on The Prepared's podcast (1, 2). It is the core of our ability to manufacture customized consumer electronics in a just-in-time manner. This is no small task, and we're proud to be doing something that enterprises and startups around the world struggle with.

We are currently looking for a freelance Ruby developer to help us improve and build additional integrations for tpr-coordinator, the backbone of our manufacturing operations. Applicants should have experience developing and maintaining web applications and should be comfortable deploying them on Heroku. Experience with Amazon's and Squarespace's commerce APIs, Shippo, and manufacturing systems in general are all pluses.

If this sounds like you, poke around tpr-coordinator on GitHub and then give me a holler here.

Looking for a laser marking vendor

Added on by Spencer Wright.

An open RFQ:

I am looking for a vendor who can perform laser marking services on stainless steel parts. This is a customization that we offer for The Public Radio as seen below; we purchase the laser marking in MOQs of 100+ and have an estimated total usage of 2500 this year. 

The Public Radio - Custom engraving - large.jpg

If you do laser marking or know someone who does, please get in touch here. Note, my preference is to find a supplier that's within 1 day of ground shipping from New York City. 

The Public Radio's assembly & fulfillment processes

Added on by Spencer Wright.

In preparation for our full rollout at our contract manufacturer, Worthington Assembly, I spent a bunch of time honing The Public Radio's mechanical assembly & fulfillment processes - organizing the workspace, testing each error check, scanning random shampoo bottles to make sure a weird barcode doesn't screw things up. The processes and tools we've developed will inevitably evolve yet, but at the current setup is solid.

So, video documentation!

Mechanical assembly

We begin by taking in printed circuit board assemblies and making mechanical assemblies. We typically do this in batches of 18, and once a batch is done they're scanned into inventory and put in a tray on a shelf:

Obviously, the mechanical assembly step is *not* done just in time; a mechanical assembly might sit on the shelf for a day or a week before its time comes. Then comes:

Order fulfillment

This is where the real engineering comes in. Here we have multiple systems - Tulip, our order management database, and a bunch of scripts & custom hardware to round things off.

So, two videos!

I gotta say - it's a pretty cool process :)

The Public Radio's inventory dashboard

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Every few weeks since The Public Radio went into production last summer, I've been struck with a pressing - and often urgent - need for some new and/or improved business or operations tool. One recent occurrence was particularly pressing, as we've had a few (ultimately manageable) inventory issues and are facing continually more complex logistics: We needed to know more about what parts and assemblies we had on hand at any given moment.

The Public Radio is assembled, programmed, and fulfilled from two locations: Worthington Assembly (our contract manufacturer and PCBA house in Massachusetts) and our corporate headquarters (a.k.a. my basement). The materials we use come from China (our speaker, potentiometer, and a few other electronic and mechanical components), Taiwan (our lid), a few stock component distributors in the US (our jar and a few SMT components), and a few custom US manufacturers (our box, and for radio station orders some laser marking on the lids). Some of these parts are used by Worthington to make our PCBAs; some are used to make our mechanical assembly; the rest are used to fulfill orders.

What we need to track is that conversion chain: Parts to PCB assembly, parts (and PCBA) to mechanical assembly, parts (and mechanical assembly) out the door.

For my current purposes, there are three events in this chain: Receive inventory, Create mechanical assembly, Fulfill order. (Note that I'm ignoring the components in the PCBA at this stage, and instead simply tracking the PCBA at the assembly level.) The first of these happens every few months and can be done manually, but the latter two will happen something like ten thousand times this year; it simply needs to be automated.

Luckily, our entire manufacturing process runs online. Our order database runs on Heroku, and each manufacturing cell needs internet connectivity in order to process orders. As a result, I had a perfect opportunity to build a quick and dirty cloud based inventory dashboard.

As these things go, I ended up only having a few days to build the system, and I was pretty sure that the early data would need a good amount of ad hoc massaging (i.e. I would need to use a database that could be manually edited whenever inventory needed to be reconciled). So, Google sheets it was :) 

With manual edits being sufficient for receiving (and reconciling) inventory, what I still needed was a way to record inventory events and then send them to Google. The result was two scripts:

  • The first records inventory events in a CSV that's stored locally to the event (on the manufacturing cell's Raspberry Pi). Each record contains a timestamp, the event type, and some username (either a string that's passed in as an argument or the Pi's hostname, which is unique).
  • The second script parses the CSV line by line and updates our Google sheet for each inventory event. 

Our Google spreadsheet contains many sheets: One for each inventory part/assembly, and a dashboard which sums up the current stock on hand for all parts/assemblies. As a result, our second script needs to make multiple updates for each line in the CSV. This took a bit of fiddling to get right (note: appending rows one by one is slow), but now the whole process only takes a few seconds, even with 1-200 events (which is about what one manufacturing cell can do in a day) to update.

The result is simple, but powerful: A real time (or nearly real time - the second script currently runs once a day on a cron task, as there's really no need for more granular data) dashboard showing on hand inventory of 8 different items:

Critical levels all over the place. But also, just in time!

Critical levels all over the place. But also, just in time!

This will eventually get a few updates. The most important one is to track inventory of the two manufacturing locations (Massachusetts and Brooklyn) independently - a relatively easy task. I'll probably also create an interface for reconciling inventory, which is currently done by manually adding reconcile rows (instead it could probably be done by removing all old inventory events and adding a single "starting inventory" row). Lastly, there's a high likelihood that the work being done in the inventory scripts ends up being integrated directly into Tulip, which is already handling the vast majority of our operations.

But even without those improvements, these two simple scripts form an incredible tool. 

A Cell

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This has been fun:

This is The Public Radio's manufacturing process development cell, and with it I've built and shipped hundreds of lil' mason jar radios over the past month. 

As I wrote in The Prepared recently: 

TPR is a side project, and the vast majority of our process development this summer was done either on my kitchen table or on my desk, which had been pushed over to the side of what was once my office to make room for our baby's play room. But as the complexity of what I was doing increased, and as I accumulated stacks of cardboard boxes and started really tripping over all of the ethernet cable, I finally admitted that I needed to move myself into the basement and set up a proper assembly station.

In retrospect I was silly for waiting so long to make the move, and despite the low ceiling and the lack of natural light and the hum of the dehumidifier it's clearly a superior workspace. This is partly because I can implement a bit of maker time there, but mostly because it helps my empathy towards the folks *actually* doing our manufacturing. 

The hard part is knowing just how much of the work I need to do. And to be honest, I know that my own sense of empathy grows in proportion to my tendency to think that I've figured out the right way to do the thing, which is not something I like to bring into a relationship with a contractor. I prefer to delegate completely; to trust everyone in the process to bring full responsibility over their domains. I'm working on it; it's a process :)

A few additional notes:

  • Making customized-to-order products is *hard;* anyone telling you otherwise is either inexperienced or has some ulterior motive. We've put a *ton* of time into our order management and manufacturing operations systems (s/o to Gabe for the former and the whole team at Tulip for the latter), and there are still a lot of edge cases and error checks that I want to build out. It's either "you need humans with judgement on the assembly line at all times" or "you need to think through every single problem that someone would use judgement for and build its decision tree into your manufacturing system." It's *hard.*
  • I've always been a stickler about workplace organization, but setting up an assembly cell (where tasks are discrete rather than general and will be performed thousands of times each) brings up ergonomic issues that I have never had to confront. Of particular frustration is basic stuff like the way that countertop height interacts with stool height (and, optionally, footrest height).
  • If you're responsible for maintaining your product's (in our case, physical + digital) manufacturing tools, you should expect to be intimately involved in building thousands of units before handing the process over to someone who isn't a competent troubleshooter themselves. We needed to ramp up quickly, and rolled out to our CM a bit prematurely; the upshot is that Tulip an be updated on the fly and the majority of our physical infrastructure is purchased from McMaster-Carr and Amazon.
  • Torque limited electric screwdrivers are great. Also, stackable/hangable parts bins. If anyone has experience/tips for easy + affordable conveyor or onramp/offramp systems, LMK ;)

Since writing the above, we've come over the hump and are now focused on holiday orders. This has required a lot of energy, and has largely sapped my ability to  post updates here regularly. BUT never fear! We're posting semi-regular updates on The Prepared's podcast, and will have a bunch more interesting stuff to share soon :)

In the meantime, enjoy this twelve minute video of me building TPR boxes:

A month or so of TPR work

Added on by Spencer Wright.

The Public Radio is in preproduction.

First: I spent part of week in Taiwan, Shenzhen, and Dongguan in late June visiting a few of our component suppliers, and parts started trickling in at our manufacturing partner last week. Proof:

A few notes here:

  • A huge thanks to Lucas, who came with me to the speaker factory and was just generally a hospitable guy while I was in Hong Kong & Shenzhen. Thanks also to Kuji for showing me an awesome time (see this video) in Shenzhen. 
  • Visiting our speaker manufacturer for the second time (the first time was two years ago) was great. Knowing our suppliers is a real treat, and I've very much enjoyed working with them.
  • Seeing the mold for our new custom speaker was big. This was an investment - both in the tool itself and in our relationship with our speaker factory - but it makes The Public Radio more robust and *much* easier to put together. It reduces the assembly's total number of parts and allows us to use larger screws, which are easier to handle and will take less time to install. That both saves us money and makes TPR an overall nicer product. This is also the second injection molded part I've ever designed and is *slightly* more complex than the one before it, so from a personal standpoint it was *really* fun to actually touch.
  • China, as always, is just mind boggling. I especially appreciated Ofo, which is amazing.

Second: Since then, I've been dealing with our remaining procurement issues (mostly logistics & cash flow planning; some vendor management) and then hammering on our actual manufacturing plan. The Public Radio has an extremely simple user interface, and to create that there's a *ton* of work that goes into managing the assembly & fulfillment process. This involves a few special things:

  1. As Zach and I discussed with Gabe on The Prepared's podcast a few weeks ago, we've now got a fully custom order management database which coordinates customers, tuning frequencies, and shipping data (and a few other little things).
  2. An instance of Tulip, which will handle not only our assembly training but is also acting as the connective tissue between our database and the real world. Tulip will coordinate barcode scans, assembly steps, and our radio programming jig to keep everything in sync. It also logs productivity and can help track defects down the road. In short, it's awesome.
  3. Our radio programming jig. Josh is taking a crack at this (among other things :) now, and hoping to make it more reliable & robust than the ones that we used on the first batch of Public Radios two years ago. 

These three things are *just* starting to really come together this week; I've got maybe a third of it all running on my desk right now.

Next up: We should have a fully functional prototype of our manufacturing system running in two weeks. We'll be testing it in NYC for about a week, and will then bring the whole thing to Chicago to fit it into Accelerated Assemblies' processes. By then we'll have all of our materials on site and, after a short run or two to iron out any kinks, will be in full production mode.

More soon :)

Now, to work

Added on by Spencer Wright.

In reality we've been chugging away nights & weekends for months, but it's nice to have it be official:

As I said on The Prepared's podcast a few weeks ago, it's still a bit crazy to me that people like this thing that we came up with. It's fun - a rare way for me to relate to people who are otherwise totally dissimilar to me. 

There'll be lots to share over the next few months, and I look forward to sharing it. Thanks *so* much to everyone who kicked in - we're really excited to have you with us!

The Prepared's podcast + A history of The Public Radio

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Some updates!

So, I've been working on some stuff. 

First: Thanks to The Prepared's *awesome* donors, I've redesigned and relaunched Awesome!

Second: In the spirit of expanding The Prepared's purview (which is why I'm taking donations in the first place), we now have a podcast! The goal of it, as with this newsletter, is to help people prepare for good work - and to share the results of the big things they've worked on. To kick things off, we've got two episodes: One with Zach on the history and future of Centerline Labs, the company we cofounded to create The Public Radio, and one with Zach and Gabe about some of the things we're thinking about on the eve of...

ThirdThe Public Radio's launch on Kickstarter! I'm very excited about this, and it deserves a bit of explanation:

The Public Radio started in 2013 as a longshot side project - "a product idea for a single-band FM radio," as I described it four years ago. Going back through my blog while filtering for the "publicradio" tag shows a funny story. Early on, I posted a lot of "this was my workday" posts. Then there was more topical content - my struggles finding the right potentiometer; little thoughts on how to take crowdfunding offline. In early 2014 Adafruit posted something short about us, and shortly after we soft launched

All of that was under looks-like prototypes; it wasn't until mid 2014 that we had a works-like, which we assembled (without SMT stencils! we were so naive) by hand. At this point the design iterations were more substantial, but it wasn't until late that year - after our first Kickstarter campaign - that things really became serious.

At this point we started getting some real attention, and a bit of backlash as well. It's worth mentioning that at the time, my days were spent consulting for Bank of America and GE on management & marketing strategy; The Public Radio was a weird thing to match that with. But it was getting *fun* - real engineering problems, real supply chain problems; real business problems; real press coverage; my first injection molded part. I was interviewed by New Hampshire Public Radio and by Matthew Lesko, the guy who wears the question mark suit on old '80s infomercials. 

And then, all of the sudden, we (with the oh-so-gracious help of friends/family/indentured servants) shipped 2500 radios to people all over the world. We missed our Kickstarter shipping goals by about a week; pretty good.

Almost immediately afterwards, we went to China to plan for v2.0. We visited our speaker supplier in Dongguan and roamed the Shenzhen electronics markets, and did all of the other things you'd expect. But as we were heading back to the US, my day job was in the process of vaporizing, and for the ensuing two years The Public Radio has largely been relegated to the odd warranty email.

So, this relaunch. The thing is, The Public Radio is a good product, and we want to find a way for it to live on. This is harder than it sounds. No matter how much the traditional supply chains are being (*cough*) disrupted, it's still really hard to run a hardware business in your spare time. The Public Radio is an incredibly simple device - intentionally so - and yet it's real work to get it made.

But we're trying anyway. We've got a pretty nice plan here - one that keeps TPR lean on capital requirements, keeps our supply chain short, and (most importantly) makes for a really nice customer experience. There's a lot to unpack here, and you can bet that I'll be sharing more here in the next few months :)

Anyway, that's that. Please, check out The Public Radio on Kickstarter and share it!!!! They look great, work great, and make for *excellent* gifts. And as we build out our manufacturing process, you'll be right there learning about it with us!

The Prepared's Podcast

Added on by Spencer Wright.

As I've said here before, The Prepared was never meant to be a media operation. And yet, when I think of its place in my life and in (apparently) the lives of its readers, it's just that - and I can't help but want it to be more

So I'm happy, then, to announce The Prepared's first experiment into audio. Appropriately enough, the first episode of The Prepared (the podcast) is a conversation between myself and Zach Dunham, the better half of The Public Radio - which, as it happens, is *about* to relaunch on Kickstarter.

You can subscribe to The Prepared's podcast on iTunes or on my favorite posting app, Overcast. Heck yeah!

Stamping die changes

Added on by Spencer Wright.

So, Zach and I have been working on an updated version of The Public Radio, and I figure we're about due for a manufacturing update. So! Here goes:

This is the same progressive stamping die I've shown here, but with some small changes. The locations and diameters of our main assembly screws have changed, and as a result the tool needed to be modified. 

The cool thing about progressive stamping is that you have multiple stations - in this case five - to work with. As seen above, the stations go right to left. Initially the screw holes were punched in station one (far right), but now they're being done in station two. Making this change just requires removing four punches and then adding four new ones + corresponding holes; the old holes are simply left unused.

We've got a few other updates coming up, including visits to a few factories and a new assembly/tuning management process. Stay tuned :)

New TPR designs/drawings

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Made some updates to the models for The Public Radio this weekend. Included:

  • Made a full assembly model of the antenna. I had never done this previously, instead opting to let our suppliers make drawings. No more of that.
  • Fully updated our speaker model to allow for easier mechanical assembly and thru hole mounting to the PCB. This has been in the works for a while, but I needed to remodel the basket fully - and rethink the way that the lid screws work. I also renamed the speaker "Ground up speaker." You know, because of the fact that we're redesigning it from the ground up.
  • Added PEM nuts to the assembly (it was hex nuts before). I also adjusted the full screw stack so that it's fully supported throughout the assembly.
  • Remodeled the knob to be metric. ISO FTW! (Also note that the drawings are all on A4 paper :)
  • Did some basic housekeeping on the model, renaming and reorganizing elements to make maintenance easier.

I also did a bit of work to the EagleCAD - mostly just updating the speaker hole locations & sizes. Zach has done a bunch more work on this over the past few months; I'm mostly just dealing with mechanical interfaces here.

More on this soon, I hope :)

Don't let anyone add any features

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Just a quick note:

I can't tell you how many times over the past year I've congratulated Zach and myself, in retrospect, for pulling off The Public Radio like we did. Specifically, that we didn't listen to *anyone* who asked us for new features.

We sold an FM radio in a mason jar, and we packaged it in kraft paper and a brown Uline box. People had asked for rechargeable batteries, and solar charging, and a headphone jack, and a multi-station option, and all other manner of things. We also considered retail packaging, and replacing our potentiometer with a rotary encoder, and (if we go way back) using a custom CNCd enclosure for the radio.

I really, really, can't emphasize this enough: The fact that we ignored our own urges, and politely told everyone else that what they were asking for was "on our backlog," is the only reason that we were able to deliver The Public Radio anything close to on time. 

Delivering a product is *hard,* and you don't get any bonus points for having a CNCd enclosure. Seriously. Don't let anyone add any features.

Photos from an antenna factory in Shenzhen

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This past July, Zach and I visited The Public Radio's antenna supplier in Shenzhen. I had only a vague idea of how antennas were made, and it was interesting to see the process in person. It was also fascinating to see a shop that relied so much on manual and mechanically driven machinery. 

A few observations:

  • This shop manufactures a variety of parts, with the defining feature being that they're made of tubing. For our antennas, the process works basically like this:
    • Tubing is bundled together with zipties and cut to length by wire EDM.
    • Tubing ends are swaged in/out.
    • Sections are assembled into a single telescoping unit
    • Meanwhile, end fittings are manufactured from solid stock. This happens either on the automatic turret lathes, or on single-operation manual machines (lathes/drill presses).
    • End fittings are installed on the telescoping antennas, again using swaging/forming processes.
  • The whole operation was decidedly low tech and manual - almost disturbingly so. It would seem very difficult to control quality - which I guess should be expected when you're looking at a niche, and rather inexpensive, commodity product.

A few of the photos have notes on them - click to show.

Photos from a speaker factory in Dongguan

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This past July, Zach and I took a trip to the Pearl River Delta to visit, among other things (see one, two), the factory in Dongguan that made the speakers for The Public Radio. Below are some long overdue photos from the visit, along with whatever comments I can muster up from memory. 

Note: if you click on the photos, you can seem them larger. Some also have my own notes on them too.

Like most factories I've visited in both China and Taiwan, this one comprised a cluster of buildings around a large concrete courtyard. Immediately inside the gate on the right hand side (out of view of the photos below) was the office building; to its left was the assembly shop, then dormitories, then a building that housed the toolroom and the injection molding line.

We started our tour in the office building. I didn't get any photos of the conference areas, where we spent a good portion of the visit (we needed to discuss a redesign of the speaker, which was going to require new tooling and a few other changes). We dropped our bags there and introduced ourselves, and then went upstairs to see the R&D area.

There were a *lot* of different speakers here. The main part of the R&D area housed a few cubicles, each of which seemed to have more product on it than the last. There was also a small workshop area for assembling sample units, a semi soundproof chamber, and a listening room.

Our supplier had on site tooling and injection molding. We didn't even realize this coming in, but it was great to see that they could have full control of their own process and design. 

Tooling is then sent next door to the injection molding line. Our factory was in the process of installing automated part handling on a few of their machines, which was interesting to see in real time. 

Then up to the speaker assembly area. They had (if I recall correctly) six moving assembly lines, which were broken up by the size of the speakers they could handle. Speaker assembly is mostly a process of gluing different components together, so there were a bunch of specialized tools that would inject adhesive in a controlled manner.

Back outside. The office is on the left here, then the injection molding line & toolroom, then the assembly shop.

Heading back to Dongguan that afternoon, I was impressed with what we had seen. This was a pretty small business, and we were a tiny customer. They (like most of the people we talked to in China) were somewhat confused with our product, but they had a good attitude and definitely understood why we wanted to make the changes we had asked for - and were interested in helping us get what we wanted.


Added on by Spencer Wright.

There are a lot of reasons to run a Kickstarter campaign. It can provide a relatively low-risk way to get market validation; it can be a non-dilutive way to cover startup costs; it can be a good way to quickly reach a large number of customers.

But notes like this - man, they're hard to beat:

Photos & notes from a visit to the Shenzhen electronics malls

Added on by Spencer Wright.

When Zach and I were in the Pearl River Delta for The Public Radio in late July, we took a few trips to the infamous Shenzhen electronics malls. A few notes:

  • This is an ecosystem. Calling them "malls" kind of misses the point. Western style malls are just the end of the supply chain; the Shenzhen electronics malls are almost a full supply chain unto themselves.
  • I don't know how many independent businesses actually work in these places, but it seems like it must be in the high four figures at least. Many of them (especially on the lower floors) don't seem to be any bigger than a chair and a tiny countertop; others are weird outposts owned (apparently) by major international brands.
  • Everywhere in the malls, work is being done. I can't stress this enough - people are doing real, tangible work. This is perhaps the most striking part about them, and it contrasts directly with what we're used to in the US (where teenagers at Abercrombies mostly sit around, stock shelves, and run credit cards). You don't even have to look that hard - at the mobile phone mall on the south side of Shennan Middle Road, there are people at almost every shop who are literally putting phones together in plain view. Similarly, at Huaqiangbei you can see people (for instance) making wire assemblies at their tiny counters. The fact that you're buying services is totally apparent here.
  • *Nobody* was phased by our presence. There were very few white people in sight (especially on the upper floors, and at more obscure malls), but (aside from small children) nobody really cared that we were there at all.

As a final note, a rather remarkable thing happened since we returned from China. My old MacBook Pro had a hardware failure, and the problem appeared to be the hard drive cable (apparently they tend to go bad on my particular model). I ordered a new one on Amazon, and when a week went by (I hadn't really looked at the shipping time estimate), I checked to see its status. Well it turns out that the cable was sent to me directly from Shenzhen. I have no way of knowing, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if it came from one of these malls.