Make Magazine has a great new special issue on kits, which includes an interview with me on all the lessons on what not to do that I learned in the early days of DIY Drones (before we started 3D Robotics to do it right).
Here's a short excerpt from the long interview and article:
What tipped your decision to sell UAV kits, rather than just share designs?
Three or four years ago I built the Blimpduino. I had the idea that you could have an autonomous blimp that would fly around in schools, and it would be great for teaching kids about robotics.So we designed the board, and we put the Eagle files up, and said here’s a link to SparkFun’s BatchPCB, here’s the parts list to buy from Mouser and Digi-Key, and here are the instructions for putting it all together.That’s when we realized it was too hard — people just weren’t going to do it. We had to build the board for people.I made about three boards and said, “I’m never doing that again.” So we got a contract manufacturer, and found out that you really have to order at scale to get pricing. We got the money together to buy 500 boards — you have to make a leap of faith, take some capital risk to get the volume. It was a little scary.Then we realized that sourcing the other parts is also hard. Regular folks have no experience in it. I spent a ridiculous amount of time learning the economics of mylar balloons. The learning curve is steep and expensive.Kitting it was the only way to really get it into people’s hands.
What did it take to make that first kit?
The blimp envelope, the laser-cut parts, the motors— it was the same process sourcing these. We had to work with Chinese manufacturers through Alibaba to get the motors. It took months to get all the boxes of components. This meant volume ordering from a dozen different suppliers, getting samples, building test boards — all before we could sell the first kit.Eventually we got all the parts, got the boards built and tested, the firmware loaded, labels printed, and at that point I bribed the children for $1 an hour. We labeled all the parts and set up an assembly line on the dining room table. I was doing quality control,but in the end, despite all our efforts, about half the kits were missing a part. I spent months sending out extra Lego parts or motors to people. I think it’s cute that a 5-year-old forgot to put in a part, but the customer might not be as charmed.