Become a Maker – All the Resources & Information You Need to Mass Produce Hardware or Create Cool Gadgets for Yourself Like Tony Stark

By on June 14, 2016

iron man maker

One of the downsides of my job is that I sometimes have to sell work I’m really proud of. Recently, I wrote a book for a client about how to create and mass-manufacture physical products and I thought it was a shame that I was giving it away. I felt it provided real value because there’s still not that much guidance out there on how to create your own products for your own means or to sell them. I mean, there’s tons of information if you know where to look but piecing it altogether is a nightmare. What if you just want a step-by-step on how to take an idea and turn it into a gizmo or a product? The good news is that it’s easier than you think.

macgyver

So that’s why I’m writing this post. This is how to leverage the power of the web to take an idea you have and then MacGyver it into something physical you can use/something mass produced that you can sell. You don’t need to know anything about manufacturing or about business and you don’t need any experience. By the end though, you should have all the information you need to call yourself a maker. Just like Tony Stark…

This also ties in nicely with my ‘Project Fantastic’ – the aim to learn the kinds of skills and knowledge that would be necessary to be able to build things and solve problems like a fictional scientist or detective. Like Batman, Sherlock Holmes, Tony Stark or Mr Fantastic…

From Idea to Design

I’m planning to write about ideation in future but for now, let’s just say you already have your idea. Whether you want to create a cool grappling hook for personal use (crime fighting), or a new fitness tracker to launch a start-up business; what you need now is to turn that idea into a design.

That means you need to know the materials you want to use (and how this is going to affect COGS – Cost Of Goods Sold – the price of each unit produced) and you need to know precisely dimensions, angles etc.

If you’re already felling stressed don’t worry, we can outsource this! Head over to Idea Bounty (www.ideabounty.com) and you can crowdsource solutions for your project. In other words, you can ask experts how to do the thing you want to do. You invite everyone to come up with solutions and you only pay the person with the best idea. Big brands have used this site, including Top Gear UK who used it to come up with ideas for covermounts.

blender

Then/alternatively, you can head over to a site like CrowdSpring (www.crowdspring.com) or CAD Crowd (www.cadcrowd.com). Here, you’ll be able to hire people that can take your idea (now with materials etc. sorted) and turn it into a CAD file for you. A CAD file is of course a ‘Computer Aided Design’ file AKA a 3D model. This contains all of the information you need to provide a 3D printer to create a simple plastic model of your object, or for a game engine to render it in 3D.

And note that of course you can always go about making your 3D models. Using CAD software isn’t that hard; it’s basically a matter of drawing in 2D, then switching the perspective to give your image depth. The most popular free and open source 3D printing software is Blender, which can be found at www.blender.org.

Electronics and Circuit Boards

Skip this section if your product isn’t in any way ‘smart’.

If you’re planning on making an actual gadget though, rather than a piece of plastic, then you’re also going to need a PCB (Printed Circuit Board). These are EWBs (Etched Wiring Boards) which can be printed en-masse before components are attached. Essentially, coper boards have conductive strips attached to them, before a computer etches the circuitry (by removing the conductive strips where they aren’t needed like a stencil, except using corrosive chemicals) and then drilling holes for the components to be mounted. You can create the necessary files using your CAD software and saving in Gerber format. The good news? When you outsource the design of your 3D model, you can outsource this bit too! Alternatively, you can create it yourself using software like Cadsoft Eagle (www.cadsoftusa.com).

gerber file

By the way, it’s also possible to create hardware using thigs like the Raspberry Pi (www.raspberrypi.org) or the more flexible Compute Module (https://www.raspberrypi.org/products/compute-module/). You can do this for your own gadgets but you can also use them in mass produced commercial hardware with no need to ask Raspberry Pi for permission or get a special license. The only caveats are that you have to include the text ‘Powered by Raspberry Pi’ somewhere on the packaging and you need to consider what the $30 overhead will do for your ROI (profits). Because Android is an open-source OS, you can even use this to create your own Android-powered smartphone (Instructables post here). ODroid-XU4 (www.hardkernel.com) is a Raspberry Pi alternative already running Android!

Even cheaper than these is ‘Chip’ (https://getchip.com) which claims to be the world’s first $9 computer and is small enough to fit into wearable devices. For finding components there are also lots of interesting ready-made options out there – like the Easy Pulse Sensor from Tindie. FLORA (www.adafruit.com/flora) is practically a ready-made wearble that lets you add and remove sensors as you wish.

Gumstix is also a great site worth checking out (www.gumstix.com). They sell custom computers and boards, letting you use ready-designed configurations or design your own from scratch.

3D Printing and Prototyping

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll be familiar with 3D printing. This is the idea of taking your CAD file and turning it into an actual piece of plastic, metal or other material.

become a maker

The great thing about 3D printing is that you only pay for each item you print, when you print it. Your only overhead is the material and the 3D printer/time of the 3D printing company. There’s no upfront investment and if you just want to make one item for your own use, then you can do so easily with a 3D printer provided it isn’t too large or complex. Of course you can also print out parts and then assemble them yourself.

Alternatively, 3D printing can be useful for creating parts of a bigger project – such as the casing for a smartphone or tablet. Likewise, it can be very helpful if you need to raise funding, as it allows you to create a prototype that you can show off as proof of concept. More on this later!

To create your 3D object, the easiest option is to use a 3D printing company like Shapeways (www.shapeways.com) or like i.materialise (https://i.materials.com). All you need to do is to take the 3D file you outsourced earlier and then upload it. The file should be in either STL, OBJ, X3D, DAE, Collada or WRL format.

makerbot replicator

The other option? Buy your own desktop 3D printer! This way, you can create your own toys from the comfort of your home and even sell things like phone cases or screws on eBay with the only overhead being the raw materials. Plenty of companies sell 3D printers but a good place to start looking is Makerbot (www.makerbot.com).

As mentioned, if your interest is simply in creating toys and custom gadgets for yourself, then your journey could end here. Using 3D printing, you can now create a vast range of small objects, whether that’s something to work out with, or casing for something else. And using PCBs or ready-made chip boards, you can bring your creations to life and give them some brains.

Obviously you also have the option of creating tools, gadgets and products yourself DIY style. In other words, by welding, hammering and cutting raw materials to bend to your will.

Manufacturing

But if you want to become the next Steve Jobs, then you’re going to have to go one step further and actually get your project mass produced. This means finding a manufacturer. Fortunately, you now have the digital files and all the components and materials you need.

To formalise this list of components and materials, you’re going to need to create either a functional specifications document, or a product requirement document. This is simply a word document describing the basic idea along with all the tangibles and intangibles you require. This should be described succinctly and might include details like how long you want the battery to last, whether it needs to be food safe etc. You may want to skip this stage though if you’re already confident in your design. This is more for the purposes of consultation.

iron tony

Otherwise skip straight to your BOM (or electrical BOM for electrical hardware) which stands for ‘bill of materials’. This is simply a list of all the items you need. You can imagine it like the first page of IKEA flat pack assembly instructions. This means listing everything – right down to the paint. You might want to consult with your manufacturer (or a manufacturing broker) before you get to this point, which is where the functional specifications document can come in handy. For the electrical BOM you’ll need to include part numbers where possible.

Finally, you’ll want to include a MOQ (minimum order of quantity), also known as a rough order estimate. This tells the manufacturer how many pieces you’re looking to make. This is important for you to get an accurate quote but it’s also important because it will affect the manufacturing processes they choose. Certain processes are better for smaller runs, whereas others are better for larger quantities (normally because they last longer but cost more up-front).

To find a manufacturer to work with, one of the best sites you can use is Makers’ Row (www.makersrow.com) which also includes an active and helpful community. You could also try Alibaba (www.alibaba.com) or Thomas’s Register of Alibaba (www.thomasnet.com).

It’s generally also a good idea to include any specialist instructions for your manufacturer as well as your prototype if you can. You can also ask the manufacturer to send a prototype themselves, to demonstrate that you’re on the same page before you order 5,000 units…

Funding and Selling

While you can use 3D printing to print your products on-demand, this won’t work for commercial hardware ventures. In this case, you’re going to order a large quantity of items at cost price and then try to sell them at a profit.

The obvious way to find funding is through a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com) or Indiegogo (www.indiegogo.com). Thanks to these sites, many projects (such as the Oculus Rift!) were made possible that otherwise could not have been. The idea is simple: you create your prototype and explain your idea in a video and then set a ‘target’ amount of money to try and raise. People offer to back your idea a) because they want to see it become a reality and b) because you are offering some kind of reward (most often amounting to a pre-order). Kickstarter is the biggest platform but you only get to keep the money if you meet or exceed your goal. Indiegogo on the other hand lets you keep the amount you raise, no matter what happens.

tony stark working

Either way, this means you get backing without having to give away any of your company or take out a loan of any kind. Of course getting a business loan or even using a credit card is another way to fund yourself but then you better be pretty sure people are going to buy your products. Alternatively, you could always use a PayPal loan, which is what I would do if I was going to go that route.

Or you can use the traditional option of finding an investor. In this case, you can still find plenty of options that make life easier for you such as AngelList (www.angellist.com) and Seedrs (www.seedres.com). Or you can go even more traditional and meet with angels face-to-face (or on Dragon’s Den!). Just make sure you have your projections right and you’ve done your market research.

And finally, you’ll want to get selling. In this case you can either sell online through your own ecommerce store, through eBay or through options like Amazon Launchpad or Brookstone Launch (www.brookstonelaunch.com). These are both aimed directly at start-ups. Launchpad lets you create a product page to tell your story and gives you access to start-up accelerators and crowdfunding. Brookstone meanwhile gives you help with engineering and designing and then helps push your idea into stores.

Iron Man

If you want to sell in stores, then you need to approach a ‘buyer’, who is the person in charge of buying inventory for a store. Make sure you’re contacting the right person (so you’re getting the right department for instance) and check for ‘product submission’ pages on big sites. I’m not based in the US, but I know that Wal-Mart has step-by-step instructions on its site. If you’re struggling, then just look for a Sales Representative who will act like a broker.

Conclusions and a Few More Tips

There are some other considerations you might want to take into account depending on the nature of your product. For example, you may want to think about intellectual property protection, in which case you should look into patents or NDAs (non-disclosure agreements). Note that patents are very expensive and complicated and actually the best way to protect your ideas is normally just to do it first and do it best. That and most people aren’t trying to steal your ideas… If you’re going to be selling commercially then you’re going to need to think about fulfilment (shipping) as well.

There are also some simpler options you might want to consider if you want to make something quickly. For example, you may want to consider dropshipping. Dropshipping means that you’re selling someone else’s product except that the manufacturers are ‘white label’. This means they’ll put your branding on the packaging and perhaps even on the profit and you’ll get a good chunk of the profit even though they’re handling manufacturing, storage and fulfilment. Another option is to get a licensing agreement, which means you’re selling your idea to another company that will handle all the risk. The downside? They also get most of the profit, as well as control of your invention. You’ll typically get around 10% of the revenue but on the plus side, it means getting money for doing practically nothing. For this method you probably will want to get a patent and that means finding a solicitor. You’ll also need a prototype and you’ll need a business model that demonstrates why your idea is low risk and bound to make a killing.

custom tshirt

Me in my custom-made t-shirt!

Or you can just make something very simple via custom goods with a site like Spreadshirt (www.spreadshirt.com) that will let you put your logos/images onto hats, mugs, phone cases and more. Lulu (www.lulu.com) is likewise a site that lets you turn an ebook into a physical book but only print it as you need copies rather than having to invest in lots of inventory. This is called Print On Demand (print on demand).

So all that’s really left is deciding what you’re going to make and how you’re going to make it. Will you create custom workout equipment like Bruce Lee? Will you create a new piece of hardware and sell it to the masses like Steve Jobs and Wozniak? Or will you build a suit of armour like Tony Stark?

iron man boot

Subscribe Below to Stay Up to Date!

Mailing List

About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.