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Making Money Technology work / small scale manufacturing datasheet opinions sought
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XPQ22 Offline
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Technology work / small scale manufacturing datasheet opinions sought
The guys at the Boston meetup last night inspired me to draw up my first datasheets for the "Lifestyle" section. I plan on dropping two this week - the first one I essentially hammered out this morning is on driving tips for the younger suburban guys on how to not get killed or injured on the road, which makes meeting girls rather difficult.

The second is going to be about the work I do, which is doing coding/design/consulting on electronics hardware. So I understand that this is sort of a niche area, and not the kind of hustle that it's possible to immediately start making a nice income in in three months or something. But as a long-term goal, the good thing about the electronics/code side of the tech industries is that they're areas it's possible to break into without necessarily having a degree in the field. I didn't do my undergrad in electronics design, it's just something I found I had a talent for originally as a hobby.

You can't get hired as a civil engineer without a degree in civil engineering, you can't get hired as a lawyer without a law degree, you can't work as a doctor without going to medical school. But you can certainly make money in some areas of tech as a self-starter. One of the best hardware designers I know was originally a chemist.

The other nice thing is that the financial "barriers to entry" are extremely low, unlike something like say learning to be a mechanic, where ideally you want to have your own tools, place to work, money for parts, etc. You want to learn to code? All you need is a laptop - the other tools are free. You want to learn about circuits? The days of hacking parts together on a worktable are over, for the most part. You can experiment with all sorts of ideas in a simulator on the same laptop - and that software is also free. I've designed some circuits that I never once assembled on a breadboard, just do the graphic simulation with the (usually correct) assumption that the output is a good match to reality, export the data to a PCB design suite (also available free online), send the files over the Internet to China and get some shiny new boards in the mail a week later. Stuff the parts and if all goes well it works first time.

I have some experience writing software for the desktop, but not a whole lot. Most of the code I've done has been for small microprocessors, like the 8 bit AVR chip the Arduino is based on:

https://www.arduino.cc/

The languages I have the most experience in are C, C++, and Python. But the "embedded" world is rapidly changing too, and not all the knowledge out there is keeping up with the times. Even very cheap little microprocessors, like the cut-down versions of the ARM architecture you have in your phone, have enormous processing power compared to just a few years ago. It's not like the bad old days when you had to fuck around with assembly language and obscure compilers and really cut down C to get anything useful done. You can buy a chip the size of your pinky nail for $2 each in small quantities that has equivalent processing power to a desktop PC from the mid 1990s, at least.

I remember reading a book on circuit design from the early 1980s that said when microprocessors become low cost enough, they'll be in absolutely everything sold simply because, hey, why not. That time didn't happen as quickly as the book predicted, but I think we're there now, to the point that often the best solution to some requirement that would've been done with transistors and a half-dozen ICs a decade ago is just to digitize the signal and process it with a cheap DSP. It's a bit humbling to have a $2 ARM microcontroller beat you easily in a game of chess, but that's where we're at.

There will always be a place for pure analog design, but it's shrinking. But that also means there's money to be made there as well for the younger guys with the talent, as the older generation who lived and breathed it back in the 1960s and 1970s leave us.

In looking forward towards Trump's administration and his desire to bring manufacturing back to the US, where we disagree is that I'm not sure it's possible for the US to be successful in the volume-production game, even if everyone stops shopping at Wal Mart and we accept higher prices on products. That's their forte, and you never want to fight on the "enemy"'s terms. I know I'm biased here, but I think small-scale manufacturing of custom products is our strength. Your product, your way. And the technology is there to do that.

So my question is for anyone who is interested in this avenue, is there anything particular I can elaborate on? Again, most of my experience is in programming cheapo microprocessors like the Arduino, and with audio stuff like building and repairing amplifiers, keyboards, guitar amps, etc. At the very least I can post some of what I consider to be the cream-of-the-crop books, online references, and software, so one doesn't waste time on irrelevant information, and practical money-making doors the knowledge can open.

Or make your girl a pair of purple spinning LED earrings for Halloween. They love that shit.
(This post was last modified: 01-22-2017 01:28 PM by XPQ22.)
01-22-2017 01:22 PM
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XPQ22 Offline
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RE: Technology work / small scale manufacturing datasheet opinions sought
Just as an example of a project I did recently, a musician I know on the west coast needed a MIDI-controlled stereo audio switcher for some shows he's doing, and there wasn't anything available on the market that met his requirements for a reasonable price. I happened to have a pre-made switcher PCB I'd bought from China on eBay a while back for a project that didn't pan out. I think it cost around $14 including shipping. Put them in an off-the-shelf enclosure along with a prefab microprocessor board (an Arduino variant) and mount the appropriate jacks and signal lines. The basic MIDI code for the processor is freely available online, with a little editing it drove the switches nicely.

Send it off and got a couple hundred bucks via PayPal in exchange. Not bad for a lazy Saturday afternoon's work...Blush
01-22-2017 01:43 PM
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evilhei Offline
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RE: Technology work / small scale manufacturing datasheet opinions sought
Cool thread! Im doing some hobby programming and circuit development with Arduino aswell. I recently got https://www.wemos.cc/product/d1-mini-pro.html and its very nice for 4$ price.

Maybe you can elaborate more on how you make money from these products? What kind of commercial products you sell? Are you doing development for others or doing your own products?
01-23-2017 02:41 AM
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H1N1 Offline
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RE: Technology work / small scale manufacturing datasheet opinions sought
I'm sure you're probably aware of it, but if not, here is a great OS of sorts for embedded work. We use it on all our products, as the dev environment for all of the coding we do, and it is exceptionally useful.

http://chibios.org/dokuwiki/doku.php
01-23-2017 05:01 AM
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XPQ22 Offline
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RE: Technology work / small scale manufacturing datasheet opinions sought
(01-23-2017 05:01 AM)H1N1 Wrote:  I'm sure you're probably aware of it, but if not, here is a great OS of sorts for embedded work. We use it on all our products, as the dev environment for all of the coding we do, and it is exceptionally useful.

http://chibios.org/dokuwiki/doku.php

Thanks! I had heard of it, but I hadn't found anyone who was using it successfully in a commercial environment. I'll definitely look into it now that I have your "+1" on it
01-23-2017 05:30 PM
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H1N1 Offline
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RE: Technology work / small scale manufacturing datasheet opinions sought
(01-23-2017 05:30 PM)XPQ22 Wrote:  
(01-23-2017 05:01 AM)H1N1 Wrote:  I'm sure you're probably aware of it, but if not, here is a great OS of sorts for embedded work. We use it on all our products, as the dev environment for all of the coding we do, and it is exceptionally useful.

http://chibios.org/dokuwiki/doku.php

Thanks! I had heard of it, but I hadn't found anyone who was using it successfully in a commercial environment. I'll definitely look into it now that I have your "+1" on it

Definitely worth checking out. My guys swear by it. We are successfully using it in a commercial environment. It will hold up to some quite advanced operations (ML on embedded sensors etc). It can be a bit of a bitch to get to grips with initially, but it is well worth the effort.
01-24-2017 04:55 AM
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Neo Offline
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RE: Technology work / small scale manufacturing datasheet opinions sought
Definitely interested in both online and offline resources for learning this. Been doing a lot of programming, but haven't looked into this side of it yet. Thanks for the datasheet XQP22.
01-24-2017 07:22 AM
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Phoenix Offline
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RE: Technology work / small scale manufacturing datasheet opinions sought
Great! In that datasheet, could you please have the following (based on either your experience or your hearsay):
- A typical timeline of bringing a small scale manufacturing product to the market. E.g. from when I have the idea for an "automatic home bread butterer", how long does it typically take from idea to making sales online? What are the stages involved and how long do each normally take?
- About how large are the development teams typically?
- Around what figure are the costs for each prototype construction, and the first production run, from a typical Chinese factory?
Cheers
01-24-2017 08:43 AM
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TheMaleBrain Offline
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RE: Technology work / small scale manufacturing datasheet opinions sought
(01-24-2017 08:43 AM)Phoenix Wrote:  Great! In that datasheet, could you please have the following (based on either your experience or your hearsay):
- A typical timeline of bringing a small scale manufacturing product to the market. E.g. from when I have the idea for an "automatic home bread butterer", how long does it typically take from idea to making sales online? What are the stages involved and how long do each normally take?
- About how large are the development teams typically?
- Around what figure are the costs for each prototype construction, and the first production run, from a typical Chinese factory?
Cheers

There is no "typical".
I havee seen guys sit on their idea for years until it matures.
Think about it along the lines of "procedure time". "Procedure time" is a concept best known for doctors. You ask a doctor: "When do you examine me?" and they answer: "right after the patient before you". This means that there is no timeline, but there is a procedure.

The steps I know, and have witnessed:
1. Idea development including business plan - time scale: months - years
2. Prototype - you find an industrial design firm to do it, or do it yourself.
time scale - months
3. Production - you find a company to produce it (after the prototype seems feasible) - time scale - months (you may reduce it by finding that production house during prototype phase)
4. Sales - you setup online store or other distribution channels. time scale - with production.

I'm probably simplifying things, but this will give you a good sense of the procedure.

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01-24-2017 03:22 PM
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RE: Technology work / small scale manufacturing datasheet opinions sought
(01-24-2017 08:43 AM)Phoenix Wrote:  Great! In that datasheet, could you please have the following (based on either your experience or your hearsay):
- A typical timeline of bringing a small scale manufacturing product to the market. E.g. from when I have the idea for an "automatic home bread butterer", how long does it typically take from idea to making sales online? What are the stages involved and how long do each normally take?
- About how large are the development teams typically?
- Around what figure are the costs for each prototype construction, and the first production run, from a typical Chinese factory?
Cheers

Without wishing to hijack XPQ22's thread, perhaps I can help shed some light on this too as I have built a business in this area:

- This will depend on how innovative the product is. Assuming it is an innovative product requiring a couple of clever guys (top level recent graduates - you get the best mix of brilliance and affordability as the pay curve for really good people is pretty steep) working on it full time: 1-2 years typically, and probably around $100-200k. Less complex stuff at the bottom end of the scale, more complex consumer stuff towards the top end.

1. First you have the idea. You should immediately get in front of as many potential buyers as possible, and float the idea as something that you've already been working on that is nearly ready for delivery, without promising timelines - be clear the discussion is to gauge interest, but it's important people think this is something they may be able to buy in the near future. This will give you your most important initial feedback - is there a market for your product. When you're asking people if they'd be interested/think it's the best thing since sliced bread, you want at least 50% to be saying yes for it to be worth your while. Even then, no guarantees. This is why it's important for people to think about it in a way that puts money on the line - it can't too abstract to them or the feedback will be misleading.

2. Then you talk to a very good electronics engineer who ideally knows how to get a prototype going inexpensively. A hobbyist is what you want, someone who has lots of interests that are broadly relevant. They'll know about which chips should do the job, bits of hobbyist kit that you can just plug in to give you a shortcut to viable prototype. This should be a quick process to prove fundamental viability - less than 3 months.

3. You get this prototype going. It costs you more than you'd have liked, looks crappier than you'd imagined, but works. You then go back to your initial market, and show them it working. At this point, I think it's crucial if your product is going to make you rich that you're getting upwards of 70% enthusiastic approval and potential buyers, as many of these will take a long time (more than 12 months) to convert to sales. It's important to pipeline early.

4. If you've got the reaction you've hoped for, then now the hard part begins. You've had the thrill of getting something going, and you know you're probably on to a winner. You employ an electronics engineer, or two, and perhaps a software engineer. You're now a team - if these guys sacrifice other opportunities and are loyal to you, they will want, and should get equity. You now settle into a 9-24 month cycle of designing pcbs, specing them, revisioning, debugging, and generally paying huge bills for frustratingly little progress. Every week it will look like you're just a few days or weeks away from your amazing new product. Then you will find that the datasheets provided by seemingly reliable distributors/manufacturers are inaccurate, or details have been missed. For example, you will find that some component driver marketed as ultra low power has a data sheet that describes the ultra low power pin and the correct mapping for it, but makes no mention of a second pin which must be grounded if the component is not to draw 2k milliamps. You will wonder for weeks why your board of 200 such components, all of which are advertised as low power, is drawing 1000 times as much power as it should be. There will be a thousand possible explanations. All of which will be reasonable to investigate. This grounding will require you do another run of boards scrapping everything on your current crop. This new run of boards will have a new error. Allow for at least 3 revisions, the first couple will have bits of wire, resisters, and all sorts of shit soldered onto them.

Whilst doing all this, you need to think about how you'll create a cover for your circuitry, and how that'll look and feel. Initially my advice is to try to repurpose something 'off the shelf' if you can, and build your initial units yourself. Otherwise you'll need to raise VC funding, they'll take 50%+ of your equity, screw you down on price, and still want to sell the business just as it starts to get exciting. Angels would be a better bet, but they will be harder to get money out of and argue more about valuation.

5. At some point, you will run out of errors on your board. Probably about the same time you run out of money, max out your overdraft, and are seriously considering turning to prostitution to keep the business afloat. There will be very little elation at this point, some mild relief, and if you feel reflective you'll probably be surprised at how unaffected you are by what is actually a monumental triumph and testament to your fortitude.

6. Probably at this point a tiny fraction of your 'sure things' from when you initially went to market will mobilise immediately and give you some survival revenue. You'll be frustrated and disappointed at how much longer it still takes to reach breakeven (allow 3-6 months from the product being market ready). All through this period you'll have been generating future leads, all of which will have seemed a million miles away, speculative, and expensive to investigate. There'll be times when you seriously question whether you can afford to pay a £30 train ticket to take a meeting with a major firm who are provisionally interested in your product.

7. One day, after a long period of relentless heartache and frustration, punctuated only occasionally by modest successes, all of this will come good. All of those future leads will start to come in, and you'll get some big contracts, and suddenly after not having had a pot to piss in for years, you will find that you are an overnight success and worth a lot of money. At this point you'll have a hundred irons in the fire, a ton of great ideas for how you're going to take over the world - you'll be able to see how you're going to be worth 8-9 figures within 5 years, and where you might then go from there. If there is a better, more euphoric feeling in life than this - knowing you're on the cusp of something remarkable - then I have yet to experience it.

At this point, it will all have been worth it. The endless hours, the weekends lost, the pussy passed up, the money in salaries that went unearned, the lifestyle you sacrificed and the friends you lost - everything will have been worth the work you put in and you'll be well on your way to a really great life.

If you go down this route, it's going to suck for a long time though, and you should make peace with that.

Additional info:

PCBs typically run $100-300/100 boards from China. Quality is variable, and sometimes you'll find that after run 3 or 4 it drops precipitously. There's very little reason to get these made in China these days. I can get them made in the UK for within 50c/board of what I can get them done in China after I've paid import duties, with none of the hassle. Then you should allow $2-5k depending on complexity per run of circuit boards (per 100) for a factory to oven solder the components.

Hope that helps.
01-24-2017 06:03 PM
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Stallion Offline
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RE: Technology work / small scale manufacturing datasheet opinions sought
As an engineer myself, and hobbiyst, let me chime in. I've not mass produced my own products yet (at least on a big scale) but I know many people in my network who are dealing with this.

What you want is the right kind of product.



Very basic things will be copied in china in a matter of hours. If you have any success, you will pay for research and prototyping, and the chinese make the profit.

Just so you get the idea, last year there was this phone external battery thingy that appeared on kickstarter. They guys may have spent months reseraching the market, doing marketing videos and developing a proto (it was a very simple product, not much research involved.

Well, after 3 days of the first pictures appearing on kickstarter, the chinese had already built their own product and where selling it online using the kickstarter brand and photos. Remember, they didn't have a real product to copy, just the kickstarter description.

This is not always the case (they will at least need a copy of the product and a week to reverse engineer the circuitry and build their own). But you get the idea.



What you need is something complex enough that it makes sense to pay a premium for aparent quality (I say aparent because your product will still be of chinese quality, but with your brand on it).

For example the chinese can make GoPros and iPhones for 10% of the price, same quality (probably same factory) yet people feel more confortable buying the real brand.



But be careful though, don't underestimate the developement cost as complexity rises, it's exponential. As an example:

I have a simple home lab I accumulated over the years. Cost around 6k in total, fits in a big piece of lugage. I can do 99% of what most people would ask for a prototype.



However in the workplace, working on higher end stuff, I've used oscilloscopes that cost up to 20k per unit.
And even then there were times when I reached the limitations and would have needed an even "better scope".

Imagine, this hight speed signal doesn't seem right. We need a differential probe to look at it. It's just a fancy cable right? Well, be ready to pay 5k for the cable.

For every engineer, the instruments we had on our bench for daily day use was probably close to 500k. Multiply that by 20 enginers for a decent size project, and this thing ramps up quick.




I'm not saying that a 3 man band can't do stuff in their garage with a crappy chinese multimeter. There is still a hudge market for simple yet profitable products.
Just don't plan on building the next iphone in your basement.


This whole arduino maker thing has had many advantages, like raising interest and bringing this kind of tech into everyday people, so that maybe some of them will become good engineers some day.





But the downside is people think that making real products is as easy as plugging an arduino and turning it on. It's not.




And don't even get me started on dealing with the manufacturing process, supply chain for your components, and dealing with all the bullshit you will encounter with your chinese suppliers.
(This post was last modified: 01-28-2017 07:53 AM by Stallion.)
01-28-2017 07:52 AM
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H1N1 Offline
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RE: Technology work / small scale manufacturing datasheet opinions sought
Ah Stallion - spoken like a true engineer!

There's a lot of truth in what you say. However, I think it puts an excessively negative spin on things.

It is brutally hard, and always slower and more expensive than you can anticipate at the start, that much is certainly true. However, if you're going to be an 'entrepreneur' your job is to find the engineers who can make the seemingly impossible happen and create an environment where overcoming the problems posed by a lack of equipment and resources becomes routine. I think this is why so many people fail at creating products, and indeed why so many bright, capable engineers remain engineers all their lives, despite working on the development of some pretty cool stuff.

The fact is that you can develop extremely complicated stuff in your garage, if you have the right people, with the right direction, and the right attitude. Those three things can overcome all manner of obstacles. I don't say this as some abstract argument - I have built and sold two extremely profitable and highly complex products from my garage, with a 3 man band of remarkable, brilliant, overworked and underpaid, and exceptionally loyal young engineers. These 3 guys have been offered 8 PhDs between them since they started working for me, because of some of the stuff we are working on, and we've sold to some of the biggest household names in the world, as well as into more specialist areas. Two of our main sectors of interest over the coming year are widely regarded as being at the cutting edge of technology, and they have leaped to adopt what we've been doing. All this for c.£250k total investment in development.

Of course, we're now about to take on another 7 people or so over the next 12 months, because progress will become unsustainable without a lot more money and resources. However, if you have a good idea and can get the right team together, you absolutely can build something highly complex in a garage with old equipment, sometimes repurposed and a creative approach to problem solving.

A big problem engineers seem to suffer from generally is that they work in environments where money is no object, there's all the capital investment in equipment they could need, and the pressures to commercialise what they are doing are removed from them and put onto sales & marketing and management. We turned out something in 5 months recently that one of the top engineering universities in the UK have spent 2 years trying and failing to do with a hundred times our budget. Our limited resources, hard deadline, and need for focus enabled us to produce something very cool, where plenty of much more experienced and highly talented engineering professors had failed. Whereupon the fuckers tried to pinch my entire team.
01-28-2017 09:43 AM
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Stallion Offline
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RE: Technology work / small scale manufacturing datasheet opinions sought
That is very true, big companies throw so much fancy tools at engineers that we forget how to be immaginative.



I think it boils down to the difference between small startup and big company:

Big companies have plenty of cash, but wages for good engineers are so high that they will do anything to save time.

If an expensive tool saves engineers 5 minutes per day, it will pay itself in a few months, because every engineering hour costs many hundreds in cash.

Time is expensive for them. Cash is cheap.

Startups are low on cash, but their engineers will work extra hours if needed (it's actually expected of them).

It's the oposite for them, time is cheap.


Wasn't trying to be overly negative. It's definitely a fascinating world to be involved in, specially now. Just be realistic and take this kind of cost into account.
01-28-2017 11:10 AM
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