Gas station without pumps

2014 July 18

How to sell a widget

SparkFun has a tutorial on how to sell “widgets” through them at How to Sell Your Widget on SparkFun – Learn.SFE:

Have an awesome electronic widget that you want to get to market? Great! We are always listening for new ideas from our customers and the community. We get many inquires on this topic, so read this tutorial carefully to keep your product pitch from getting lost in the shuffle.

We’re lucky, here at SparkFun, to have an amazingly creative and talented group of customers. Not only can they identify gaps in the catalogs of electronics suppliers, they can create a gizmo that fills that hole. But, going beyond a prototype or even a limited-quantity production run, often the hardest task in getting your world-altering product out there is producing, marketing, and/or selling it to the masses. That’s where we come into the picture.

The advice there is seems fairly reasonable.  They offer a choice of two models: make it yourself and have them sell for you, or have them make it and pay you royalties.  They tell you how to pitch products to them and how to design for them to be able to manufacture stuff.  Most of the stuff they sell is PCB boards, so they give quite a bit of advice about PCB design to fit their pipeline—they use Eagle, but ‘All parts are placed on a 0.005″ grid. If possible, use a .05″ grid.’ That must get irritating with modern parts that are convenient round metric numbers, not mils.   They also want version numbers in the bottom copper, which is reasonable for some designs, but not all.  They also encourage people to use their Eagle libraries, but my son and I have found their pad layouts to be very sloppy (putting silkscreen over SMD layers, getting the keep-out areas off by a little bit, not fixing the fonts on the “>NAME” and “>VALUE” labels to meet their own requirements, and so forth).

Still, it is good that they put out their design rules and provide clear guidelines to new designers.

I’ve thought a few times about putting out some of my designs through SparkFun or Adafruit Industries—perhaps an improved version of the blinky EKG as a kit.  SparkFun now sells EKG electrodes and snap leads for them, and even have a heart-rate monitor board (based on the AD8232 chip) and the “BITalino” biomedical board, so I suspect that they are interested in the market.

The BITalino is outrageously expensive and their EKG electrodes are about 3 times the price of buying them at Amazon, but the AD8232 chip actually looks like a nice one for building an EKG front-end and reasonably priced, so I’m not sure they’d have much interest in a through-hole part kit for do-it-yourself EKG that isn’t quite as good, unless it could be sold very cheaply or as an educational product (which is what the blinky EKG is aimed at, anyway).

I have some other ideas for products that I might be marketable, but I don’t know whether I have the time to refine them to the point of pitching them to SparkFun.  I can justify some time spent on doing electronics as a hobby, some as necessary learning for teaching my applied electronics course for bioengineers, and some as engineering-for-manufacture experience (something I never had any instruction in, despite my years as an engineering professor). But when the electronics work starts cutting into the time I need to spend on writing my book, teaching my classes, or doing collaborative research with other faculty, then I have to draw the line.  I’ve also got a lot of administrative responsibilities now (undergrad director and faculty adviser for two BS degrees, Program Chair for bioengineering, and Vice Chair for the Biomolecular Engineering Department), so writing time and research time have gotten doubly precious.

I do have one project this summer that I’m going to try to get fabricated for me—it is all SMD parts, including some that are hard to solder by hand (pads under the chips), so I don’t want to do it myself.  The project also calls for a lot of identical boards (20 to 50 of them), so a prototyping house seems like the way to go.

I’m looking currently at Smart Prototyping to do the PC board fabrication and assembly—they may not be the cheapest, but they have a comprehensible pricing scheme on their website, and they replied within 12 hours of my request for a quote. They also have a nearly turnkey system—I send them the Gerber files and the Bill of Materials (BOM), and they’ll make the boards, buy the parts, and assemble the boards.  They’ll even test them for an additional charge, though these boards are simple enough that I can test them myself at about 5 seconds a board, so their testing would not be worthwhile unless they guaranteed their assembly (which none of the prototype houses can afford to do with untested designs).

I also considered Elecrow, which has a similar service, but their pricing information on the web page is rather vague: “For BGA or IC with pads under IC, The quotation will be a little higher.” and “We will give a discount for the PCB assembly service according the some factors (assembly time,Hard or Easy to assemble or requirements etc.).” I prefer sites that have clear pricing even if it is slightly higher, so that there are no surprises. I suppose I could ask Elecrow for a quote and see if they respond as promptly as Smart Prototyping did.

Incidentally, my design does not follow all SparkFun’s guidelines—for one thing, I placed parts on a 0.5mm grid, not a 0.005″ gird, and the board is not rectangular.  Still, if the design I’m working on turns out well, I might pitch it to them, as I see some potential for it appealing to the open-source hardware market, and the violations of their design guidelines made good sense for this application.  Note: I’m deliberately not saying what the design is—I’ll reveal it once I’ve gotten a working prototype, when I’ve decided whether I want to commercialize it or not.

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2 Comments »

  1. http://www.tindie.com/ seems to be growing well for independent makers to sell stuff direct to consumers. It’s probably not what you would want since with Tindie you are providing distribution; they are just a marketplace. But it’s possible that some of your readers would want to consider it as an alternative or addition to selling through sparkfun and/or adafruit. I have had good experiences so far purchasing through Tindie (as well as sparkfun, nothing against them!)

    Comment by Michael K Johnson — 2014 July 19 @ 04:57 | Reply

    • You’re right, if I start a hobby business it will not be to do distribution, though some of the products on Tindie do look like the sort of things I would make.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 July 19 @ 09:45 | Reply


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