This is a series that will document Nomiku’s journey into lean manufacturing in America through the conversations of the founding team: Lisa, Abe, and Bam. We will update the series as our adventure in building our high-tech device that lets people cook with the cloud continues. As we enter uncharted waters with unique challenges, these articles are to make us accountable to the Maker community that have gotten us to where we are today. Our project is currently live on Kickstarter.
Why couldn’t we prototype in America in 2012 during the first version of Nomiku?
Abe: There are two main reasons, the CAD tools were just not accessible the only tool that was remotely usable for a Maker was Google Sketch-Up. You couldn’t get really good quality CAD software at an accessible price, i.e. most programs like SolidWorks were $20,000.
Bam: Second, a diversity of 3D printing services did not exist. Specifically the variety of materials that are available now weren’t available when we first started. Materials and quality are at finest we’ve ever seen them. We also were Mac users and none of the programs ran on a Mac. It doesn’t seem like a big deal but if all of your have is a Macbook it’s a huge roadblock to have the funds to purchase another computer. When we’re talking lean, we’re talking about building a prototype for $2,000 or less.
How do we prototype now?
Abe: One of the interesting things about prototyping is its interaction with sourcing. This is something that hasn’t been talked about a lot. So you want to use off-the-shelf or standard components, as standard as possible, but you can’t have those components on a mass scale because nobody stores that many of anything. An example is a heater, there’s nothing off-the-shelf in volumes we could find specific to our needs. We had to work to find a source that can provide something similar to what we had in mind. We source in parallel with the prototyping. We can’t do one before the other. This helps us stay in lean in America because we can estimate our BOM (Bill of Materials) cost.
Bam: In our machine we sourced five different pumps helped us handle things in parallel, as our design needs to progress forward, so do these parts, and so then we look for new ones that match our new found specifications.
Lisa: Sourcing is the hardest thing to do in America because most things aren’t made here. It’s also hard because a lot of Chinese companies won’t quote you because you’re too small and your parts probably require a lot of customization versus a big B-to-B business that can give them hundreds of millions of dollars worth of orders. There is no easy solution, the only thing to do is to keep contacting more vendors until we find the right balance, it has worked for us so far and we continue to strengthen our relationships this way.
Bam: There are also sourcing service professionals that can help you in this domain and they are very effective, so you have to look for a balance between cost and time in this regard.
What is the prototyping process?
Lisa: Prototyping is foremost an educated learning experience much like the classic scientific process, where one starts with a hypothesis to test out a theory. But instead of putting it on paper we first have to connect the essential physical parts required.
Bam: In an immersion circulator, there are important environmental requirements like withstanding being submerged in hot water, steam ingression on electronics, vibration from motors, etc. So we start with that, and we build a model that we assume will work in that kind of environment. Along the way, we might find that the test fails, and we record the cause and come up with new designs based on our findings. We focus on one problem at a time to address engineering issues effectively. One time, we found that a particular type of plastic near the heater expanded very slightly while in use and caused a microscopic opening letting steam in from the side, but when we shut off the heater to inspect, there was nothing to be seen because the material had already contracted back to its original shape. We spent a few hours recreating the environment and found the issue and proceeded to change the material in our next prototype. It’s not just about the shape of things and how they fit, but also the core material and how they interact with the world. We repeat this process until we have dealt with all the problems and can move on.
Abe: We started prototyping four years ago when we made our first immersion circulator. We just bought parts online and then connected them together.
Bam: Even less daunting, to start, if we’re playing with shapes sometimes we’ll just take an object in the house like a tissue box or an oil can. Through this we can progress to 3D-prints and CAD much faster from going thru many rough works-like prototypes.
We first learned how to build on a mass scale in cities in the south of China. This is where the epicenter of high-tech manufacturing lives and for good reason, they have the suppliers and factories all in within a few miles of each other and they’ve been doing it for a long time. It was here we gained confidence and skills to make many of one thing through learning what they did right and what they did wrong. Many high-tech electronics may have to start here, here are my articles in the past on this topic.