Bridging the Gap Between Makers and the Supply Chain

Technology Wearables
Bridging the Gap Between Makers and the Supply Chain

Many backers of projects on crowdfunding platforms have experienced the anxiety of waiting for the package to arrive as promised. Meanwhile, the creators of those projects spend their own sleepless nights trying to get the projects delivered within the promised shipping time. But there are almost always problems, such as sourcing critical components, debugging and redesigning fixtures, and improving structural designs, which won’t be solved easily, even after the many Skype meetings and several trips to the suppliers.

Manufacturing and shipping are among the many problems that concern makers, especially as more begin to build, source, and sell products. They have a brilliant idea and finally come out with a working prototype. After launching on a crowdfunding platform, some got funded within just a few hours. But their work is just beginning — problems come along when they try to turn the projects into products. It’s just not as simple as turning one piece into 1,000, let alone greater than 20,000 pieces if the project is really popular.

Here are some of the main problems that lead to delays:

  1. Lead time for sourcing components for production is longer than for prototypes
  2. Certain critical components are not easy to procure and might need substitutes
  3. The design of fixtures needs to be improved for testing a larger quantity of products
  4. Quality control of PCBAs in production
  5. Improving structural design
  6. Communicating with a logistics company

These problems occur because of two main reasons. For one, the current supply chain is aiming at serving mass production for large companies instead of small startups. Another is that project creators are not familiar with manufacturing, and their design is not always compatible with the manufacturing condition.

How can makers solve these problems? Here are some suggestions for how to make supply chains compatible:

  1. Encourage the use of shared components (from an open parts library). In this way, both the quality and quantity are ensured. Meanwhile, the price is more competitive.
  2. Provide agile productization services to help makers test and improve their designs efficiently
  3. Provide design-for-manufacturing services to make it easier to put makers’ projects into production
  4. Provide drop-shipping services to ship packages to the backers directly, helping makers skip problems in logistics

Little by little, the gap between makers and the supply chain will be narrowed, and then makers can enjoy a more maker-friendly supply chain ecosystem.

Take, for example, a product built in cooperation with Seeed Studio, where I am a blogger. This story is about a wearable product named “BETWINE”, which grew from idea to prototype but struggled to become supply-chain compatible for a production run of more than 10,000 pieces. BETWINE aims to promote good health and love between you and the people you care about, combining an activity tracker with a social simulation game to connect people, even people who are thousands of miles apart.



Let’s have a look at a the following picture, which shows how BETWINE, inspired by a Tamagotchi, evolved from a prototype to its alpha version.



ImLab, the startup behind BETWINE, is made of a global group of makers, designers, researchers, and entrepreneurs. But like many other startups, while team members have excellent skills and are professional in their fields — product design, user interface, hardware and software, etc. — they don’t know much about manufacturing. It led to some setbacks while BETWINE went through tremendous changes from its prototype to the first production batch.

In the process of putting prototypes into production, ImLab ran into problems including uncertain lead time, structural problems, and a low yield. In this process, Seeed worked closely with the ImLab team to solve the problems. For examples:

Uncertain lead time

When a battery supplier couldn’t produce in time, Seeed helped search for two additional suppliers, to get samples for testing. ImLab could then change to another supplier directly without affecting the lead time of the whole project.

Structural problems

The wristband needed to be redesigned so a small metal part would not scratch the wrist, and the connection of wristband and the polycarbonate enclosure required strengthening. Together, engineers from Seeed and ImLab Team redesigned the structural parts to get rid of these problems.

Low yield

The vibration from the ultrasonic soldering method affected the performance of the PCB, causing damage to the accelerometer and leading to a low yield. To solve this, the structure was redesigned to minimize vibrations and the technicians trained to be more proficient.

In the first batch ImLab produced 100 pieces; after solving those problems they went on to the next level and finally shipped 1,000 pieces to their customers.

After this process, ImLab is ready to put BETWINE into mass production with InnoConn, a new hardware startup incubator that helps startups access resources formerly available only to large companies.

BETWINE is now live on Kickstarter, joining a long list of products bridging the gap between makers and the supply chain ecosystem, one more example teaching makers how to realize their dreams.


WearableWeek_Badge_small_bur01This week, July 14-19 2014,  we’re exploring wearable electronics of all kinds on Make! If it is electronic and belongs on your body, we’d love to hear about it! You can find all of our wearable articles by going here.


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