Electronics are still difficult
Despite the popularity of the maker movement, it is still difficult to turn designing, manufacturing and selling of electronics into a viable way to earn a living. The proliferation of technologies such as 3D printing and easy to implement micro-controller have lowered the barriers of entry for creating prototypes and one-off DIY projects, but when talking about manufacturing on any significant scale things are slow to change.
But the future looks bright for hardware as a viable business endeavour for individuals. As outliers of the maker movement who desire to sell their creations at scale start to hit upon the legal, procedural and financial limitations currently in place, those limits will start to erode. This article will point out some of the things that need to be dealt with if we are to lower the barrier of entry for getting into hardware as a business.
How to make it simpler
As it is today the path from product idea to market looks fuzzy and complex when laid out. In the roadmap presented below all steps relating to marketing, managing manufacturing and delivery have been omitted, and yet it is still a long path to follow. If we were to draw a more complete roadmap it could easily be twice the size.
So how do we make the path from idea to market a simpler one to follow? There are two parts to this task, let’s take a look at both of them.
Part 1: Mapping the steps
The first thing to do is to investigate which parts are essential for most electronic products to hit the market with maximum possibility for success. These parts would include many of the steps diagramed in the roadmap seen before, but would also add new ones and break ones too large into multiple steps. At the end of this process (which I will likely do in a future post) you will have a fairly large map that a person could use to get an overview of the steps necessary for launching hardware onto the market.
Part 2: Simplifying the steps
When I lived in Barcelona I came in contact with a service for entrepreneurs called Activa. It is an awesome initiative that has the mission of simplifying the process of starting a business in Catalunya. One of the services they provided was to effectively eliminate the hassle-some paperwork needed to setup a business. What would have been a several month long process of researching Spanish legal requirements and sending signed documents back and forth, they turned into something that any person could do in a couple of visits to their office. They completely removed the anxiety and confusion that would have otherwise been there, and made starting a business a possibility even for those without the time or patience to go through the government websites to figure out all of the required papers and procedures.
The reason I bring this organisation up is that it is a great example of turning a step that was once complicated and pitfall riddled, into something almost trivial. The same way Activa simplified the legal step of starting a company in Catalunya, companies/organisations will need to go in and simplify the steps of launching hardware onto the market.
But an important question follows: wouldn’t having more middleman-organisations helping along with the different steps, make the process overall more costly? Not necessarily.
Alibaba is great example of how a for profit organisation can simplify hardware manufacturing without making the process any more costly. For those unfamiliar, Alibaba is something similar to eBay, only instead of individuals selling their things online you have far-east manufacturers offering you their services and products at extremely low prices compared to EU/US. The way Alibaba turns a profit is to keep the main functionality free while charging for value-added services such as ads, optional memberships and percentage cuts from payments going through their system. This business model allows even those who are not willing to pay for any extras to get a lot of value from the website.
Creating a company that has the mission of simplifying one of the steps for getting hardware to market is not only possible, but I believe it to be a ripe business opportunity.
Creating affordable tools
When designing products I prefer not to draw any hard lines between functionality and shape, but for the sake of this discussion let us do exactly that. As we are talking about electronic products the functional part would be the circuitboard and the shape part would be the protecting case.
3D printers are carrying the promise of making manufacturing simpler, but most affordable printers bring little to the table when it comes to scale manufacturing. The most limiting aspects of today’s 3D printers are the speed and the material properties of finished parts. The printed material is often fragile, has anisotropic properties (different strength in different directions), horrible surface finish and takes way too long to print.
There are 3D printers that seem to solve these problems but they come with a high price-tag that removes the cost advantage of 3D printing necessary for people to get started in the first place.
But at the end of the day I have little doubt that 3D printers will become better and go down in price, making the shape part of most products more or less solved.
Nearly all electronic products include a circuit board. Because of this overcoming the challenges associated with manufacturing circuit boards at medium scale is as important as that of simplifying shape manufacturing.
The reason for why Arduinos and similar micro-controllers will not eliminate the need for custom circuitboards is that they are not cost effective, and are generally difficult to install into custom designs.
In the future I imagine a machine coming along that is similar in complexity to 3D printers and allows for people to create and share their circuit board designs online. This is how the manufacturing process with such a machine could look like if we were to dream:
- Download a ready-made design or create a custom one from scratch/template
- The design software gives you a bill of materials (BOM) with components
- Order the components on standardised strips
- Feed your circuitboard-making-machine the strips and un-etched PCB
- The machine cuts holes
- Components are placed
- Components are soldered
- The custom circuitboard is ready
If such a machine and online repository of designs could be created, it would lower the barrier of entry for people interested in creating electronics significantly. There are steps being taken in this direction but we are still some way from a fully integrated and affordable machine for handling circuitboard manufacturing on a medium scale.
To get a product that contains electronics onto the market today you need to get CE, FCC, RoHs and WEEE certification depending on what your product does, contains, and where you plan on selling it. While I agree that it is important to have measures for assuring safety of potentially hazardous products, the requirements for certification today are too complex and expensive to be manageable for most people.
The complexity of certification could be solved by introducing a middle-man that handles the paperwork, but the price will need to be reduced through legislative action.
The medium scale, low capital manufacturing discussed in this article is not meant to be a replacement for mass manufacturing, but rather a complement. Lowering the barriers would bridge the gap between prototype and large scale manufacturing that exist today, inviting more people to earn a living of their product ideas.
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