Business Contextual Electronics

I’m in the knowledge business, not the hardware business

I’m paying way too much to get PCBs made.

How do I know this? I’ve done it before. I know how many boards I’m making (quite a few!). I know the costs. I know the tradeoffs. And not only that, I’ve gotten quotes from China. I’ve seen how little I can pay (15-20% of what I will end up paying per board).

But that’s not the whole story of course (one sentence statements of my idiocy are left for my Twitter account, this is much more long form). No, this is actually a combination of factors, mistakes and conscious decisions that brings me to this point.

So first, the reveal: I will be using OSHpark to manufacture boards for Contextual Electronics. Here’s why:

  1. I know James (Laen) and trust him — I have met and had beers with Laen. I’ve bought boards from OSHpark before and had (small) issues quickly resolved. I worked with him for the boards I sent to the Open Hardware Summit. I can gChat with him from time to time. These things go a long way in business, in my book.
  2. I believe in OSHpark — You probably have been seeing more and more purple boards pop up due to the awesome $5/sq in service for a 2 layer board with soldermask and silkscreen. I can’t imagine how that would have changed my learning process when I started making PCBs and I get to hear how positively this has impacted people in the process of learning. Added bonus: Made in the US of A, baby!
  3. I got a bulk rate — I was a bit fast and loose with the amount of material I designed into the BenchBudEE. I wanted to have a lot of large mechanical features, I wanted to teach using a 4 layer board and I wanted to be able to plug other boards into the Arduino headers (like a display on top) while still being able to access the auxiliary circuits. All of this added up to 15 sq in of PCB material. Using the $10/sq inch service from OSHpark, that would have been $150 for 3 boards. I am paying less due to the number of CE members getting boards. If you contact them, you might be able to negotiate a discount for bulk orders as well.
  4. It includes logistics — That is a shipped price. Now, before you tell me how easy it is to put PCBs into an envelope and slap a stamp on them, allow me to tell you: I don’t care. I’m not in the logistical business. Many many people are better at this than I am and I don’t want to get into it. In fact, I’m paying a premium in order to avoid it. Aside from getting set up and thinking about shipping and international issues (customs, transit times, etc), I’m also handing of some of the PCB manufacturing worries (working directly with the fab). As the title implies, I’m in the knowledge business now. I will ship and build hardware for myself, of course…but then I’ll teach others how to do the same for themselves. It’s also much more likely that CE members will be doing low quantity manufacturing and need to learn more about that at first than the high volume stuff that would end up consuming my time.
  5. It saves me head space — I’m a chronic worrier. I know myself and I know I will stress over perfecting the logistics. Instead, I should spend that time developing more class content for members, including the upcoming Session 1B of Contextual Electronics. Plus, working with people who are good at what they do (like Laen) helps me sleep better at night.

BenchBudEE V1.0

Will I definitely use an outside company to ship boards forever? No, it’s possible that I change my mind in the future and decide to pull this kind of service in house. I have seen my podcast co-host do the same with his shipping, as he works on fulfilling his Kickstarter campaign. This has been an interesting lesson and I’ve talked with Dave quite a bit about his struggles and how it’s paying off. He’s building a foundation for many future hardware campaigns (probably crowdfunded).

Note the differences though: Kickstarter campaigns ship everything at once, in batches (in a best-case scenario). I plan to continue developing and teaching new courses on a regular basis (in batches). However, if I want to allow people to sign up for past courses asynchronously (whenever they want), I may want to continue to offload shipping single units to individuals. Having a service like OSHpark or another fulfillment house do this on a per-person basis (even if at higher cost), could make lots of sense for me so I don’t have to keep inventory. Technically this could already happen as the OSHpark service would allow a student to order boards and all work we do for Contextual Electronics will be licensed as Open Source Hardware. However, negotiating longer term contracts and having distributors (or fulfillment houses) keep them on-hand will completely remove this from my list of tasks.

From a business perspective, I am still making a very healthy margin, as I am selling a “knowledge product” (yak). However, if there were price increases due to changes in business conditions, this could be passed along to members as a “cost of doing the course”. Obviously I will work to reduce that burden on them and the trend points to the cost of PCBs continuing to fall.

It kind of sounds weird, doesn’t it? A hardware guy complaining about making and shipping hardware? But in a world of tight timelines, constrained resources (see also: my time) and my desire to continue developing new stuff, this seems to make sense for me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

By Chris Gammell

Chris Gammell is an engineer who talks more than most other engineers. He also writes, makes videos and a couple podcasts. While analog electronics happen to be his primary interests, he also dablles in FPGAs and system level design.

5 replies on “I’m in the knowledge business, not the hardware business”

I haven’t used OSHpark yet, but even when you first introduced Oshpark to me on the Amp Hour it sounded great. I’m CE student now and I had planed to use OSHpark even before I started the course.

I am totally onboard with your reasoning. You are making an extremely smart decision staying out of logistics. Besides, OshPark provides an exceptional service to students like me. I also am a student. Your course is amazing. Your style of getting info across – understandable explanations – learn by doing – group collaboration – weekly hangouts – is the best community learning experience I have had.

I hope OshPark does tours. I would love to go to OshPark and tour the facility with Laen (I’m in Seattle WA – not far away). Hey – we could make a video and share it. It could be a “did you ever wonder what goes behind the walls of the place that births your Blinky board?”

If you haven’t seen it already, James (Laen) from OSH Park was on Adafruit’s Hardware Hangout ( recently. Laen was very open and explained all of the details about how OSH Park works. It was very interesting to get a behind the scenes look at how the purple (and he explains why “purple”) boards get made.

Since the CE course I used OSHpark once and indeed I am very very pleased with it. Lead time from order to boards in hand (Europe) is 16 days. Which is almost the same (if you really stress it) when place an order from China.
And the ordering process is sooo much better at OSHPark.
And it is very cheap/affordable at low volumes.

However at higher volumes, I could greatly recommend pcbcart (China) I ordered multiple boards there for the last company I worked for and the boards are high quality and the price is very low. Lead time is 8-12 days, but that is from the day they checked everything and found no errors in the gerbers. Shipping is about 8-14 days depending on whatever.
So lead time is usually a bit longer. But it is really cost effective even with the added cost for shipping and import taxes.

However, for Chris I totally understand that if OSHPark will handle all logistics to all those different addresses for him, that also saves a lot of money on stamps and packaging and especially time.
And as a CE member I appreciate it that Chris puts his time in the course, explaining stuff to us.

Way to go Chris!

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