In Praise Of Slow Hardware

Posted: May 7, 2013 in Gadgets, Technology

20130507-084904.jpg. In all the discussions I’ve had with hardware makers
about their products, one thing is becoming clear: in
the end, the cheap part is never cheap. Take a look
at this post about a Kickstarter project for example. A
maker, Michael Ciuffo, had recently funded a very
cool QR code clock that used a simple array of LEDs to display the time in QR code. He ordered the parts from an online supplier – 500 in
total – and begin testing them. In all he saw 38 of the
500 fail in basic tests. In short, his “quick and easy”
shipment of components from an inexpensive vendor
resulted in a 7.6% failure rate. “I found out this week that sometimes goods and
services purchased in China can be of low quality,” he
wrote. In a similar vein, I once spoke to a hardware broker in
Shenzhen who sold bargain-basement phones to the
developing world. While his products were far from
amazing, he did find similar failure rates in all of the
phones he sold, resulting in the need to hire a
separate QA tester who powered on and tried all the phones before he shipped them, thereby reducing his
profit. I want to make it clear that this is no jingoistic rant,
but this is, in short, the biggest problem with off-
shoring hardware manufacturing. However, because
the perception is that local – and by local I mean a
general U.S. or European audience – is expensive,
this quality problem is endlessly repeated. “When you off-shore hardware, every mistake, and
there will be mistakes, causes a delay chain that
multiplies by physically shipping prototypes, samples,
tester units and more half-way around the world,” said
Limor Fried of Adafruit Industries. “One of the best
things you can do is keep your supply chain as close as possible.” It is telling, however, that the company just invested
in a $175,000 pick and place machine for their SoHo
office. “This is why we like to manufacture here in SoHo,
have our injecting molding in North America, PCBs
made in the USA and services like large volume laser
cutting here in NYC,” she said. The proximity of a vendor to your assembly point
allows you to, in a pinch, drive to complain. As it
stands, Ciuffo’s vendor was kind enough to respond
and resend extra pieces but after a 35 day wait on the
original LEDs he had already added a month to his
build time. While the price of the pieces was obviously low enough for him to consider the
opportunity, the cost in time and potentially QA
headaches becomes an intangible. But therein lies the problem: you can’t always source,
say, an array of LEDs locally. Chances are the pieces
are pulled from the same factory you’d be going to in
Shenzhen and, barring a bit of QA on arrival, you
might be running into the same problems. However,
as companies like Adafruit begin catering to the hobbyist and local manufacturers begin catering to
smaller batch hardware creators, I could definitely see
it becoming easier to become a true hardware
locovore. We, as consumers, should also require that the things
we buy be locally sourced. While I am well aware that
manufacturing is not all puppy dogs and rainbows,
there is something to be said for a sourcing
infrastructure that allows a Kickstarter project lead to
make a few calls and flow a bit of money back into the community, state, or country. You either pay for
cheap hardware up front or later on, in support costs.
An active slow hardware movement would allow far
more control over the process of making cool things
and would, in the end, benefit us all by raising quality
across the board.


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