Originally published on Andy's personal site at andycolborn.com
In 2015, my partner Emma and I were volunteering at an engineering outreach event for the Society of Women Engineers hoping to get local high school girls interested in engineering. Being very hands-on people, we decided to make one of our breakout sessions a soldering workshop.
The kits we had purchased for the event used pretty low quality PCBs. If you gave them a bit too much heat and abuse (exactly what you can expect from people learning for the first time), the traces were likely to lift up and break. This led to a lot of frustration. By the end only half of the projects were functioning and we hadn't succeeded in sharing the joy we had found in engineering.
So we set out to fix these problems for next time and designed our own kit using quality, high temp boards and making the kits simple enough to fit into a 30 minutes to one hour lesson plan.
We wanted to share them with the world so we made all our kits 100% open source hardware. This means all of the fabrication files, drawings, BOMs and instructions are available online for anyone to build themselves. Documentation available on Github.
Since 2015 we have taught many hundreds of makers to solder from as young as 4 to as old as 85, leading classes at our local makerspace, community colleges, Maker Faires and elsewhere. We quickly began manufacturing in earnest and found an audience on Amazon and our own Shopify store.
Over the past few years we've grown the business to nearly $100k/yr in sales, sold many tens of thousands of kits, and recently hired Kim our first employee to help us out in packing and shipping the kits.
We have gradually made incremental improvements to all aspects of the product. For assembly we've created a few simple fixtures and jigs to add speed and consistency. With packaging we've gone from printing stickers ourselves with '90s era clipart to much more professional packaging with barcodes and choking hazards and other grownup things. And most of all, we've introduced new kits!
Packaging carousel cuts assembly time by a little over 1/3
My personal favorite kit is the Jitterbug. The first prototype was assembled by Emma out of perfboard and garbage we had lying around the office. It has two LEDs for eyes, a battery and a vibration motor. At the flick of a switch, it lights up with life and skitters off on an adventure.
Emma doesn't love it when I describe her original prototype as a "monstrosity" but it did need a little polishing before we could sell it. I googled some pictures of insects and let the components drive the shape and size of the board until we had the little guy below - somewhere between an ant and a European honeybee.
We currently have three kits:
- Blink -- Our first kit, three LEDs with resistors and momentary switches
- Hue -- A central RGB LED with three potentiometer knobs that allow you to mix colors
- Jitterbug -- Solder on legs, eyes and a vibration motor that skitter across a table
And we're always thinking about adding a few more:
- Badge -- A simpler, lower cost kit for large events
- Lantern -- An update on our previous Firefly Jar kit that had a flickering LED in a jar to simulate a capture firefly
- Piano -- More complex kit with a soldered together 3D piano made from printed circuit board