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[Progress] Robotics/STEM Product Development

A detailed account of a Fastlane process...

Bitwise

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I thought it would be fun to document my struggles and progress with developing and marketing a new product for the STEM crowd. My background is heavy in science and technology and very, very light in marketing and eCommerce. This is a brand new product and not a re-branding of an existing imported product. I'm not going to drown anyone in technical details, but I'm not going to leave them out, either. It might be useful for other members to get an insight into the challenges and dead ends. I've never done this before.

My target market consists of parents who want to buy STEM kits for their kids and teachers who want to buy STEM kits for their classes. I'm specifically targeting robotics vs. chemistry, physics, mechanical engineering, and so forth. I feel I have a way to add value existing products in this space do not. My first task is to examine all products in this space and to establish the feasibility of building what I have in mind.

So, this past week -

I knew nothing about eCommerce so I bought and read the books "Ecommerce: Amazon FBA - Step by Step Guide on How to Make Money Selling on Amazon | Shopify: Step by Step Guide on How to Make Money Selling on Shopify" and "Selling on Amazon: Unlocking the Secrets to Successfully Generate a Long-Term Passive Income Business by Selling on Amazon". I felt both were extremely mediocre and would not recommend either, but since I knew nothing at all about selling online I did learn some useful stuff regarding FBA, the Amazon fee schedule, and Shopify.

I researched and documented every STEM and robotics kit I could find on every online retailer. I also read all of the reviews for every product. I created a spreadsheet listing the product, rating, sales rank (if available), and the major pros and cons and expressed in the reviews. Reading all of the reviews I realized a common theme - parents buy STEM kits to spend time with their kids, not teach them science. The positive learning experience is justification and the cherry on top, but the real focus is bonding with their children. In fact, products that attempted to teach too much were reviewed negatively. This is positive for me - adding complex features around programmability and customization would increase the support burden for my product. I was worried that keeping it somewhat simple would be a negative, but instead I think it could be a positive. I noticed the price point I'm targeting is fairly free of competition.

I shopped around locally and scraped together some things I would need to build a very rough mockup of the product. After playing with these materials I sketched out a rough product design and decided I might need some custom parts made.

Injection molding is, of course, expensive in the worst up-front and inelastic way possible. I studied ProtoLabs (Proto Labs: 3D printing, CNC machining, and injection molding services) and some of you might be interested in them. They create tooling/molds using aluminum (a process called soft tooling) vs hardened tool steel and this reduces both the up-front cost of the mold and the life of the mold. The up-front cost was still high, though, and the per-item cost was also high for my application.

I investigated some different options, but have come to the conclusion that my fabricated parts can be realized using die-cut 3mm acrylic sheets. This has the advantage of having both a low start-up and per-unit cost. I learned how a steel rule die tool is made and found several firms who do this sort of work.

Knowing I'm now designing for sheets and not an injection mold, I designed the parts I'll need using Autodesk Fusion 360 and I'm printing 3D models of them as I type this. Having 3D printed models should let me build and test my MVP entirely in-house without needed major design changes when I ramp up to create the first batch. Fusion 360 also does great photo renderings which may come in handy later for marketing stuff.

Since this product would be used largely by children 12 and under, I believe it falls under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). This act, passed about 10 years ago, mandates that every manufacturer of a product that may largely be used by children issue a report asserting the product is safe. As part of the report drafting process, parts have to be tested by government-approved independent labs. Most of the concern is regarding lead and phthalates. There are small batch manufacturer exemptions and the testing and certification process doesn’t seem especially insurmountable.

This is a robot, so some roboty stuff was in order too. I designed the circuit I'll need for this application and chose the microcontroller I'll use - an AVR ATTiny85. They are cheap, capable, easy to program, and ubiquitous. I'll be controlling DC motors with this application, so I picked the h-bridge chips I'll be using as well as several options for motors. I have a handful of DC motors handy I'll build the MVP with. I started writing the firmware in C and have it ready for testing once the parts that are printing now finish.

So - in summary so far
  • The product idea appears to be novel and it seems reasonable that it would add value in ways the existing, similar products don't
  • Cost-effective manufacturability seems strongly possible without requiring a huge upfront cost/risk
  • My next steps are to complete an MVP for immediate, limited testing. That means neighborhood kids and their parents, probably. I may attempt to give one or two away for Christmas. If they like it…
  • Then I’ll keep learning about eCommerce and marketing online and will create a landing/product page, will register the URL, launch a website, etc. The goal here is to gauge and collect interest in the form of pre-orders. I’ll then listen to the market and will decide if this is worth continuing to pursue.
  • Because nobody will know this website and landing page exists, I will probably also launch some ad campaigns, but I don’t know how those work yet.

What are good books and articles I should be reading?

What problems with my approach do you see? What am I not doing that you feel I should be doing and what am I doing that I should stop?
 
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D.Davis

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I think you're off to a great start because I too share a few methods that you're using. I have 2 CR-10 S Max Printers enclosed in a custom designed 8020 enclosure with Space Heaters for ABS printing. I design in Fusion 360 and slice in CURA. I also have a CR-10 S for PLA printing. My electronics are built using Elegoo Products and High Torque DC motors until I dial in on injection molding and surface mount electronics manufacturing (considering positive market response). If you haven't picked up the O'riely book "Prototype To Product", I think you should as it gives you a lot of things to think about should your designed product take off after marketing. My suggestion would also be to read as many Marketing and E-Commerce books as possible when you're not designing. I also recommend studying crowd-funding methods such as Kickstarter to validate your prototypes. Good luck man! I dont see too many designers and engineers on here and I love seeing different prototype creation methodology.
 

Bitwise

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I think you're off to a great start because I too share a few methods that you're using. I have 2 CR-10 S Max Printers enclosed in a custom designed 8020 enclosure with Space Heaters for ABS printing. I design in Fusion 360 and slice in CURA. I also have a CR-10 S for PLA printing. My electronics are built using Elegoo Products and High Torque DC motors until I dial in on injection molding and surface mount electronics manufacturing (considering positive market response). If you haven't picked up the O'riely book "Prototype To Product", I think you should as it gives you a lot of things to think about should your designed product take off after marketing. My suggestion would also be to read as many Marketing and E-Commerce books as possible when you're not designing. I also recommend studying crowd-funding methods such as Kickstarter to validate your prototypes. Good luck man! I dont see too many designers and engineers on here and I love seeing different prototype creation methodology.

Thanks for the book suggestion! I just bought it on Amazon and am looking forward to reading it over the holidays. Do you have any title suggestions for marketing and e-commerce?

Do you like CURA? I switched to Simplify3D from slic3r when I bought the FlashForge Pro I'm using and it's worked great so far. At the time slic3r was so bad I was just thrilled to have something that worked.

With respect to PCB design and SMDs - I spent last weekend learning KiCAD (open source) and I like it a lot. It has some sharp edges but after many tutorials and some playing around I was able to capture a schematic and a layout without too much difficulty. I'm still a total novice at it and I'm going to send a rough design off to a fabber just for the experience and practice before the final PCB design is ready. PCB fabrication is available really, really inexpensively these days. I'm planning on using a lot of SMDs in my design just due to the cost savings. I've found I can hand solder them way easier than I expected to be able to, so I can hand assemble some boards for testing. Liquid flux is the key - I use a pen applicator and a fine tip soldering iron ($30 on Amazon). No expensive rework station required (yet). I'm planning on getting a quote for full assembly from a PCB maker, though where they would apply all of the components and program the microcontroller prior to shipping the boards back.

It looks like the Elegoo kits are Arduino-based. Are you writing any code for your product? If so, are you planning on burning the Arduino software onto an AVR or re-writing it for another microcontroller?

Kickstarter is amazing and I keep a close eye on the projects there. I'm planning on using it as a marketing tool - if the MVP is successful I'll order the first batch of products then do a Kickstarter with a really low goal amount to (hopefully) ensure funding. My thinking about Kickstarter as an idea-stage funding vehicle changed when I read the bolt.io articles Kickstarter is Debt – Bolt Blog and Kickstarter != Product/Market Fit – Bolt Blog Bolt.io in general is sobering as hell and their experience is one of the reasons I'm opting for a product that doesn't require much up-front capital and where the costs are variable.
 

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