One of the trickiest parts of selling electronics kits, as we do, is how to handle customer support and returns. I'd estimate that 90% of the problems that users have with DIY Drones gear is due to user error: soldering mistakes, not following the manual properly, issues with their own PC/Mac, or simply misunderstandings and confusion about how to use the products (no doubt sometimes due to documentation that could be improved).


But perhaps 10% of user problems (and only a tiny fraction of all orders, of course) really are due to defective boards, which somehow made it out of our factory with a problem. Although every board is tested and demonstrated working before being shipped, there are some things that our test code doesn't check, such as what happens when that particular board is vibrated or subjected to cold temperatures. And there are other products that we simply resell and don't test, which could have come from their makers faulty (a recent batch of FTDI cables from China had the wires connected in the wrong order, for example).


So how to handle returns? The normal answer for companies that sell finished goods doesn't work for DIY kit sellers, since it's hard to tell whether the problem was due to a manufacturing error or user error. So most such retailers have a clause in their terms of service like this one, from MakerBot (which they discuss here), that pretty much says that the moment you power it on or touch it with a soldering iron, the manufacture's responsibility ends:

Returning Purchased Items. MakerBot Industries accepts returns for any unaffected item within 14 calendar days from the date of receipt of merchandise."Unaffected" means a device has never been assembled, powered up, programmed, or otherwise changed. MakerBot Industries cannot accept returns on purchased items that have had electrical power applied to them, or been otherwise programmed, changed, or affected.

The paradox, of course, is how can you know it's defective before you power it on? In practice, most of these companies will accept returns of products that have been powered on, but typically not if they've been soldered. We wrestled with this and decided to be more explicitly generous in our terms, while still limiting our liability:

Defective products manufactured in house will be replaced within 10 days of receipt, with the same item. All goods are checked before they are sent out. In the unlikely event that goods are faulty, they must be returned, to the DIY Drones store at the address listed on your order invoice. The DIY Drones store will not accept goods that have clearly been used more than the amount needed to evaluate their functionality. If the goods are found to be in working condition, and the lack of functionality is a result of lack of knowledge or assembly error on the customers part, no refund will be made, but the goods will be returned to the user at their expense

So this is a judgement call. Most of the time, when people ship us back "defective" boards, it's clear that they were simply soldered wrong or not defective at all (the user had plugged in their RC gear wrong or loaded the wrong code). In cases of soldering errors, if it's easy to fix we might do that, but if it's really been bungled, we may just send it back. We try to error on the side of being as helpful as possible, but there are limits to what we can do.


We've invested a lot in customer and technical support over the past few months and now have full-time employees doing both.  As the MakerBot post linked above points out, this is uncharted territory for open source hardware companies like ours, and we're all trying to find the path that is right for the community but also allows for sustainable businesses. It will evolve over time. But I wanted to let our customers know how we're approaching this, and I welcome suggestions on how to do it even better.

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Comment by Jon Keller on February 5, 2011 at 4:32pm
I assume the majority of the community are people who are capable of doing some simple soldering, but surely thats not the case for all, has a board with pre-installed headers been considered?

3D Robotics
Comment by Chris Anderson on February 5, 2011 at 4:34pm
I think you'll see our retail partners offering that (Jdrones already does, I think).
Comment by Jon Keller on February 5, 2011 at 4:36pm
Ah cool, I've never heard of them :)
Comment by brakar on February 5, 2011 at 6:07pm

On a general basis, I would say one of the key issues on the suplier side of things, is a tendency of overselling how mature a system is, -or how easy it is to get it working.

This is however understandable, since it's a common perception that things oneself undestands -should also be relatively easy to understand for others.

3D Robotics
Comment by Chris Anderson on February 5, 2011 at 6:30pm
Brakar: that's a fair point. Every time someone struggles to get something working that I've done many times myself, I have to remind myself that it took me three years of study to get to the point that I know all the tricks. It's always good to try to see tasks through newbie eyes.

Comment by Jani Hirvinen on February 5, 2011 at 7:31pm

@Keller, yes like Chris said jDrones is doing pre-soldered packets. There are already pre-soldered full ArduCopter kits now and more pre-soldered works are coming along the way. For example ready soldered Motor/ESC combinations with both CW and CCW rotating directions. Power Disribution boards, APM+IMU packets, APM+IMU+Magnetometer packets and so on...


All work are done in ESD safe area with ESD safe tools/methods, and naturally all are tested before shipped to the customer so there will be operational warranty given to those products. But if for example customer connects - + voltages wrong, warranty will void.


As jDrones is partner of DIY Drones, we also follow their general warranty rules. And we are always open for discussion.

Comment by Dean Lamborn on February 6, 2011 at 2:08pm

Electronic retailers have the same problem. They sell established, finished, tested consumer goods. TV's, computers, phones, you name it. And they still get returns from people that just didn't read the manual. That's not to say there aren't hardware failures.


Your manual has improved in the last few months. It's still terrible. I don't wonder at all that you get that many returns. Your sales verbiage makes the QuadCopter sound very much plug and play.

Comment by Brad Smith on February 6, 2011 at 3:15pm
I think WARNING placed in the appropriate places would help a lot ,more pics of port settings, baud rates ...and opamps on the power grounds , make the electronic part as plug and play as possible...and how about a active x program that would set the ports to the right ports and settings or keep software set on default settings...I put my aurduheli together today only to realize the pitch was reversed ,try load new code avr dude problem, took it all apart to find i was using wrong port : (  back together waiting for help on the reversed pitch... :)
Comment by DaveyWaveyBunsenBurner on February 6, 2011 at 3:32pm
I honestly dont think DIYD could do much more. The key to this is end user expectation. Its important that buyers understand they are buying components that form a radically evolving system and NOT a plug and play solution. Perhaps a warning when purchasing? Or how about a DIYD board that teaches all the basics (soldering, loading code, powering the board correctly, maybe interfacing to an RC system) make it as cheap as poosible and offer a refund of the baord's cost when upgrading? Better to bust a 5 dollar board than a 60 dollar board!
Comment by Jon Keller on February 6, 2011 at 5:23pm

You're right Johann, I do believe there is a misunderstanding about what open source means. It seems some companies assume it's a way of not being liable for the way their products are being advertised. (not accusing diyd). This is not the case. Nothing, not open source, nor diy, can wave the liability of an advertised product not doing what it's advertised to do. Now if it doesn't do what it's suppose to due to a some kind of user error, thats a different story, but you can't use "Open source" as "We're not liable for our product not doing what we said it would".


Again I'm not accusing diydrones of anything, I think their products have been advertised quite accurately.



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