Light Manufacturing for a Chicago Startup in a Digital World

I work at SONR Labs, a company that makes Android speaker docks.  SONR is a bit of a hybrid between a 20th and 21st century product company.  We have a small team, we use free software for design, and we're situated in 1871, a co-working space for 'digital startups'.  On the other hand, we still get our products made in "old fashioned" ways, i.e. manufactured in and shipped from China.  We like to think we draw on the strengths of both approaches.

We have our main product in stores and recently needed to create some signage to help draw attention to our product on the shelf.  These are known as point-of-purchase or POP displays in the retail industry.  My task was to get 35 professional-looking displays made and shipped out, fast.  An international supply chain is great if you need to build and sell thousands of something - but it's no help if you need 35 signs ASAP.  Furthermore, 1871 is an excellent community and place to work- but it's set up for "digital" startups - meaning they don't need a lot more space than a laptop and a cup of coffee takes up.  We needed a little more elbow room for this project and were lucky enough to get in touch with Zach from Inventables, who generously offered us the use of their workshop for this project.

With work space secured, my first step was to come up with a design for the display.  We quickly settled on the idea of using bent plastic with printed graphics as the base of the POP. To add a little flair, we decided to attach some 3D-printed Android figurines.  I've been a Blender user for a long time, so I dove in and roughed out the shape of the POP, while designing the printed graphics in Inkscape.  After a couple revisions we had a render of a complete design and a nice Android figurine .STL.  We sent the render over to the buyer at the store, and, success!  They liked the design and wanted to put it in-store.

The Render

Now, the fun part.  A local print shop made 50 copies of the design (35 for the store now, another 15 for spares) on vinyl, attached to 1/4" thick PVC stock.  Meanwhile, we printed out 50 Android figurines on our Replicator 2 - they took about an hour each. I got the exact measurements for the display out of Blender and used a strip heater to bend acrylic sheets into properly-angled jigs.  I did 3 bends per PVC piece with the strip heater, taking care not to scorch the material, and used a 1" hole saw to make way for the power cord.

Initially I used epoxy to attach the speaker dock, remote control, and figurine to the vinyl facing.  BIG MISTAKE. I had assumed epoxy was a serious adhesive for all purposes and surfaces.  Turns out this vinyl was an exception.  I managed to put together at least 10 full displays before discovering that pieces were spontaneously falling off.  The adhesion was remarkably poor.

In the end we used double-sided foam tape for the remotes, screws for the speaker dock and Krazy glue for the Androids, all of which turned out pretty darn solid.

It was a whirlwind project and Inventables was a central part of it.  Now, I don't have a lot of experience successfully building things.  I have a woodworking project in my garage that is about 500% over budget and behind schedule.  I did build a bike wheel once - and I'll have you know I only had to take it apart 4 times to get it working. Still, in spite of my "abilities", we were able to put together a fair number of high-quality displays for use in real retail stores, in front of real customers.  I have to say, the credit belongs mostly to the quality of tools available to makers today, and the community around them that we were able to do this.

The Final Product

Boxes Interview - Inventables On The Road

During Maker Faire 2013 Inventables On The Road caught up with Aviva Raskin.  Aviva's father Jef was the 31st employee at Apple.  He invented blokes and Aviva is brining them to market.  The interview covers the story of the invention and more.

  • What are Bloxes?

    Bloxes are building blocks made of interlocking pieces of corrugated cardboard, folded together. Their unique shape and structure make them exceptionally strong and lightweight—you could build yourself a platform to stand on, and then pick it up and move it wherever you need to.
  • What can you do with them?

    Bloxes can connect with each other on all six sides, so you can use them to build walls, benches, tables, tunnels—whatever you can think of. And because the varied surface and complex internal structure helps dampen sound, they're great for managing acoustics in offices, studios and other places.
  • How did you think of them?

    They are the brain-child of Jef Raskin. Aza Raskin brought them back to life when he redesigned them and used them to furnish his first startup's office. People kept asking to buy them, so we obliged.
  • How do you build with them?

    To build a structure with bloxes, simply line up the pegs of two bloxes and push them together. Repeat as necessary. Plus, they're multi-faceted, so you can build in any direction.
  • How big are they?

    Bloxes measure 9½ inches square when assembled; a pack of 20 will create a 4-by-5 blox wall of approximately 36 inches by 45 inches.

CNC Build Club - ShapeOko Night

(republished from the PS:One blog)
This Thursday at 7:00pm  Edward Ford will be hosting a ShapeOko night.  Edward can help you build, complete, setup and use the ShapeOko router.
He will also give a quick overview of the web based MakerCAM program.  MakerCAM can be used to create toolpaths for CNC routers.  Edward and Inventables are working to develop this program into a full featured CAM program.
For those without ShapeOkos, we can talk about your CNC project or work with some of the digital fabrication equipment at PS:One like the laser cutter, CNC router or 3D printers

Inventables On The Road

This week Inventables launched a new TV series called Inventables On The Road.  The concept for the  show is there are lots of people and projects in the Inventables community that are interesting.  We're trying to demystify the process of digital fabrication, give some visibility to people working on interesting things, and have some fun.

The first interview we did was with Adam Wegener founder of Trash Amps.  Trash Amps was started by an experience in college when the founders friend bought an Altoids guitar amp kit online. They thought it was a cool idea, but when they plugged in the amp and started playing some music they ran into a problem...it didn't sound so good.  The reason was of the size and shape of the Altoids container.

They took the same electronics and put them into a soda can and it worked great. Then came the realization: you can put music in anything – Trash Amps was born.

After showing a few prototypes to friends, we knew there was a market for a product like this.  Adam graduated in 2009 (Manufacturing Engineering) and joined forces with Ron (Electrical Engineer) to get Trash Amps going.  We got the chance to interview Adam at the 2013 Hardware Innovation Workshop.

A factory on your desktop

Today Crain's Chicago Business did a nice video on the Shapeoko.  It is exciting to see it covered by a more mainstream news outlet.  While an entry level $600 mill is not at the scale of a mill you might see in an automotive factory, it's really starting to reshape the way we think about what is manufacturing and where can it happen.  As more designers learn about what's possible and the technology improves we're going to see some truly amazing things from this little desktop mill.

Here's an excerpt from the piece:

"Last year, Inventables Inc., a Loop-based e-commerce company that calls itself a hardware store for designers, began selling an affordable, automated milling machine. The machine, capable of cutting and shaping wood and soft metals for nearly any project or product design, is another contribution to the digital fabrication boom that has been getting play lately as 3-D printers become more affordable to consumers.
The Shapeoko, as the machine is called, was designed and developed by Edward Ford, a manufacturing technologist frustrated with his inferior handcraft skills to make precision parts for hobby projects. Mr. Ford spent a decade designing and troubleshooting the machine, which he believes could change the way people innovate — and the range of products making their way to the marketplace.

You can read the full piece and check out the rest of their videos on retooling Chicago.