MacroFab Eases Path from Prototype to Production

MacroFab Eases Path from Prototype to Production


When Nick Johnson Kickstarted Re:Load Pro, an electronics testing tool he developed that draws the same amount of current regardless of the voltage across it, he worried about the time-consuming prototyping process he’d experienced with Seeed Studios and Smart Prototyping, both of which had required a Gerber format and bill of materials before they could provide a quote.

Instead, he decided to work with MacroFab, which builds prototype circuit boards uploaded with a slick online tool — and then, crucially, lets customers order a full production run once they’re satisfied with the design.

“The much shorter feedback cycle of MacroFab’s online tools aren’t to be underestimated,” Johnson said. “I can quickly see what parts are actually available, with real prices, and get a good line-by-line indication of which things are worth spending the time to try and optimize or replace. I can also see quickly how big an impact different price breaks will have.”

MacroFab, which has just raised $2 million in a seed round led by Techstars Ventures, manufacturers all circuits in their Houston facility, shipping each within 15 days of receiving an order. The idea, according to founder Chris Church, is to provide hobbyists, Maker Pros, and others with limited background in the baroque world of manufacturing with a path to a production run.

“Maker Pros or even small businesses need to turn around prototypes as quickly as possible,” Church said. “At the same time, they then need to go into production as quickly as possible. So we’re trying to speed up prototyping time.”

With the new funding, MacroFab plans to hire extra development staff, bring turnaround time down to as low as 24 hours, and buy more machinery: small batch PCB and laying equipment, laser cutters, and a new silk screening setup.

Another priority, Church says, is to develop ways to prototype custom housing in addition to printed circuits, a capability he hopes to offer by the end of the year.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion in-house about that,” said Church, who previously founded Dynamic Perception, a company that produced open-source photographic motion controls. “We believe there’s going to be a need for all options: modifying off-the-shelf enclosures, molding custom enclosures, and then low volume 3D printers.”

It’s difficult to compete with quotes offered at offshore facilities, but Church hopes that at the limited quantities MacroFab has dealt with so far — their largest order has been for about 5,000 units — the company’s approachable system and rapid turnaround time will compensate.

There are a few tweaks that Johnson — who has since used MacroFab to produce another Kickstarted project, the Arduino-controlled analog experimentation board Tsunami — would like to see to the web interface: each time he uploads a bill of materials, for example, the interface requires him to find and assign parts from scratch. Other than those issues, though, Johnson’s only gripe is that “at the moment [there] seems to be an overabundance of work, which means they sometimes run a bit behind.”

“From talking to them, I think that’s starting to get straightened out too,” he said.

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Jon Christian is the co-editor of the Maker Pro Newsletter, which covers the intersection between makers and business. He's also written for the Boston Globe, WIRED and The Atlantic.

View more articles by Jon Christian


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