Hello from Oakland!
TL;DR: Back from China. Have good manufacturing options. Should have all remaining quotes in hand this month, so we can pick one and get your keyboards made. Once we sign with a manufacturer, they'll commit to a ship date. Also: Bay Area folks, come see us and a few hundred other projects at Maker Faire on May 20-22.
So very many factory visits
When we last wrote, Jesse was in Taipei. He'd just visited the first two of eight potential Model 01 contract manufacturers.
The following day, he had a very positive meeting with the last of the Taiwan-based keyboard manufacturers. This was a fairly cold meeting—going in, the manufacturer hadn't seen our bid packet, nor had they even seen a picture of the Model 01. Joining the sales person on the other side of the table from us were the GM, an Electrical Engineer and a Mechanical Engineer. Since it was a first meeting, they hadn't had time to think about the issues with the feet and interconnect mechanism. We're expecting to see their proposal in about a week and a half.
As we talked through the design, the GM said he was relieved we were taking ownership of "the hard part." He went on to explain that cross-platform NKRO programmable firmware sounded like black magic and we must be carefully guarding how we were doing it. You have no idea how much fun it was to explain that we give away our source code to our customers...or to anyone else who wants it. It took a bit of additional time to explain that our USB firmware is on GitHub and that even if they didn't want to work with us, we'd be happy for them to use our firmware (for free) to make better keyboards.
Totally worth it.
Just for the look on their faces.
Open source FTW.
We eventually got to the point in the meeting where Jesse pulled out the screwdriver set and opened up the Model 01 prototype for them to have a look at.
The biggest issues they flagged when looking at the design were related to how we're doing our LEDs. Because we're using "smart" chip-style surface-mount LEDs, we're limited to a very small set of potential form-factors. Most of the available options just sit on top of the circuit board and shine straight up. To make that sort of LED work, we need to place the keyswitch right on top of the LED. Doing so means that the keyswitch legs don't stick out very far past the bottom edge of the circuit board. This manufacturer recommended that we make the PCB's about 30% thinner (1mm thick) to ensure that the keyswitches are easy to solder reliably. The other solution is to find a variant of our LEDs in a "reverse-mount" form-factor. When we first approached our LED vendor about this last year, they told us "Not yet. Maybe later." While they haven't started shipping that sort of LED yet, we're pleading with them and there's a slight chance that the delay incurred due to our ex-manufacturer could work out in our favor. It's a relatively minor change to our electrical design that would make the Model 01 easier to assemble and to repair. As we hear back, we'll keep you up to date.
When Jesse scheduled this trip, we could only fit it into one period in April. Unfortunately, most of the manufacturers we wanted to visit were booked for the week we wanted to visit them. They were all going to be at the Global Sources Consumer Electronics trade show in Hong Kong. That's quite convenient for meeting salespeople, but not so good if you want to visit their factories. And actually visiting the factories we're going to be working with is a hard requirement for us. (More on that later.)
The Global Sources trade show is actually two tradeshows spaced about a week apart. The first one is "Consumer Electronics" and the second is "Phones and Tablets." Global Sources' Consumer Electronics show alone sees 3500 manufacturers represented. It's hard to believe, but a quick Google suggests that that's almost the same number of exhibitors as CES. The big difference is which manufacturers are there. CES is a mix of smaller manufacturers you've never heard of and the big household-name brands. In 3 days walking around the Global Sources show, Jesse saw only one consumer-facing brand he’d seen on sale in the US. Aside from one exhibition hall full of electrical component manufacturers, everybody there was a factory (or a trading company passing itself off as a factory) looking for distributors outside China.
Many of the exhibitors at the Global Sources show are there to show off their catalog of ready-to-make products that they can slap a logo on before being loading them onto a cargo ship bound for Los Angeles, Lagos or Lisbon.
Products on display ran the gamut from USB battery packs to keyboards to e-readers to hoverboards to VR headsets. Hoverboards and cheap VR headsets were astonishingly popular. Terrifyingly, many of the vendors selling self-balancing personal transporters were also hawking VR headsets. But hey, what could possibly go wrong?
Unsurprisingly, our focus was on keyboards and keyboard-related technology. One of our first stops was Kailh, the leading Chinese keyswitch maker. Kailh's best-known products are "MX-Style" keyswitches, originally designed as clones of Cherry's products. When we started designing the Model 01, we evaluated Kailh's switches and found them to be...okay. Not good, just okay. But that was two and a half years ago. In the intervening time, Kailh has not been sitting still. They've refined their MX-style switches and built some really interesting new designs, including a dustproof MX variant, a version of the MX switches with internal lensing for under-key LEDs, and some new low-profile keyswitches. While Kailh was showing off their tech, Jesse took the opportunity to give them a sneak peak at the Model 01. The general manager even went so far as to hook it up to one of their demo stations and spend a few minutes playing an FPS with it.
We're still very, very happy with the Matias switches we're using in the Model 01, but there's a chance you might see a future Keyboardio product with Kailh switches.
Other than that, the Global Sources show is a bit of a blur. We sat down with a dozen keyboard makers, many of whom had never before crossed our radar. We made valuable contacts, but mostly they're folks we're holding in reserve for the future.
In China, we met with six more keyboard makers and two more wood factories. We know that some of them have been following our backer updates (hi guys!) Because we're still negotiating with manufacturers, the vignettes about these visits are out of order and slightly anonymized. The manufacturers we met with varied wildly in scale, from folks who told us that they could make 15,000 keyboards in a month up to factories who do 500,000 keyboards in a slow month.
We only visited one keyboard factory that turned out not to be a factory. When we got there, we discovered that it was a small design office and, while the salesman was very excited about making the Model 01, the boss just...wasn't. In fact, they only make products with their own brand stamped in 4 inch high letters on the bottom. They mentioned that their factories are used by the manufacturer who bailed on us. The boss said that he might maybe be interested...if they could be our Chinese reseller. They weren't a great fit.
And then there was the factory we'd been most excited about before this trip. The salesperson had been friendly and engaged. Before we visited, they'd given us a rough, very round number for their proposed unit cost for the keyboard. It was too high, but we weren't entirely sure *why* it was too high. We asked them to send us their detailed quotation so we could try to suss that out. When we got to their factory, everything started out "right”. We sat with the general manager for tea. His office was spacious and clean. He had a nice big station showing a bunch of factory workers busily making keyboards. It wasn't until we moved to the conference room and were 15 minutes into the meeting that things got weird.
The factory's team was mostly speaking in Chinese and the folks from HWTrek were translating. Even without speaking Chinese, it was clear to Jesse that something was up. The factory's GM was getting agitated, speaking louder, faster and just not looking friendly. It came out that they hated our mechanical design. They didn't have suggestions for improvement. There was more agitated discussion. Eventually, the sales person explained that they really needed to know who else was bidding on the project. We talked a little more. It finally came out that they weren't willing to really consider the design or to give us a detailed quotation for the project until after we signed a contract with them. There were some red flags when touring the factory floor, too. But by that point, we knew that these folks weren't the right partner for use.
One of the keyboard makers we visited told us they do both OEM and ODM designs, but tend to focus their efforts on rectangular keyboards for larger customers. While not necessarily what we wanted to hear, it's nice when folks are up-front about stuff like that. That said, they make very nice rectangular keyboards. Touring their factory, we got to see high-volume keyboards being made for some of the world's largest brands. While talking about feet and interconnect mechanisms, they told us that they really appreciated the fact that we'd brought prototypes of our foot and hinge designs—since they'd previously designed very similar parts but hadn't been sure they wouldn't work until they saw ours. Perhaps a bit of a backhanded compliment, but we'll take what we can get. While we were talking, they brought in their mechanical designer, who sketched out a couple interesting ideas for easy-to-manufacture feet that might work well for us. Because their senior EE is out on parental leave, they've warned us that we may not see a full quote for several more weeks.
The other massive-scale keyboard factory we visited on this trip was, hands-down, the most automated keyboard manufacturer we've ever visited. They had 3 or 4 wave-soldering production lines for mechanical keyboards operating while we were there. Like some of the other shops we visited, they were using automated keyswitch insertion machinery, though as of right now that machinery only works with traditional MX-style keyswitches being inserted into regular keyboards. Because our keyswitches are angled to match your fingers, they'd need to be hand-inserted. They were using computer vision to check that key labels were painted on correctly. They had machines that could automatically perform many of the assembly steps done by humans at every other keyboard factory we've visited. For some reason we weren't able to figure out, they even had a machine to automatically verify N-key rollover. Interestingly, they were the only factory we've visited in China where some of the assembly line workers were listening to music.
In the sales meeting, they told us that we could expect the manufacturing process to take about 3 months from the time we sign the contract to the time that units start rolling off the production line. That's just a little bit faster than the four-month lead time that seems to be pretty standard. We're expecting to see their quotation in the next few days. In terms of manufacturing capabilities, these folks were the nicest keyboard factory we've ever visited. The big concern we'd have about working with them is that we'd be a very small customer for them and that we're not meeting with senior management.
The last of the keyboard manufacturers we visited was one of the smaller ones. Like many others, it started with tea with the GM, followed by a tour and then a design/sales meeting. Of the keyboard factories we've visited, they're the only manufacturer who does the surface-mount assembly for their circuit boards on-site. Everybody else sends it out to a partner. Their injection molding facilities and assembly lines were on the smaller, more manual side of what we've seen, but were perfectly reasonable. The general manager, who also leads the design team, led the technical side of the meeting. The solutions they proposed for our feet and interconnect were simple and reasonably clever, though they still need a bit of refinement. They make ergonomic mice of their own design and manufacture one other split ergonomic keyboard already, so came into the meeting with an understanding of the design requirements around keyboard ergonomics. We've already received their sales quotation.
In the last backer update, we told you that we'd visited two wood factories in Taiwan. We were pretty direct about which one we thought was going to work out and which one...wasn't. As it turns out, the factory we didn't believe could hit our numbers because they outsource everything...hit our numbers. Their quotation is completely reasonable. The factory we thought we'd see a good quote from told us that they weren't able to source the raw maple they'd need to bid on the project. Go figure.
In China, we visited two more wood factories. One was located in Shenzhen a short walk from the subway. Their main product lines are wooden headphones and wooden speaker cabinets, though they do...rather a lot of other stuff too. They're used to manufacturing wooden enclosures that will be matched to precision electronics, some much fancier than ours. Of all the wood factories we visited, these were the only folks who said they could (for an extra charge) "book-match" the wood grains of the two halves of the Model 01's enclosure. Given their location and the "fanciness" of their existing products, we were fully prepared for their quote to come in well out of our budget. We got a quote from them this morning that was...surprisingly affordable.
The last wood factory we visited on this trip was one we'd visited on a prior trip. Except they'd moved. When we visited them last time, they were a fairly small operation—one big, chaotic room with a pair of CNC mills and some hand-finishing stations. This time around, it couldn't have been more different. They'd moved a bit further out of Dongguan. The office and workshop were separated by a bright, sunny courtyard. Everyone in the production workshop was actually wearing a dust mask. They had a bunch of new CNCs with auto-tool-changers, one of the largest plywood making machines Jesse had ever seen, a much better wood finishing operation and a collection of CNC-milling bits that made Jesse incredibly jealous. Talking through the project, the owner explained that his only real concern was around our USB port placement and how we do the cutout for the USB port. He had a few suggestions about how to make the wood around the port thicker and more robust. Their quote came in earlier this week. It, too, was completely reasonable.
Next steps for manufacturing
Once we have a full set of quotations in hand, we'll pick our top two manufacturers to push forward with. The right manufacturers will have strong manufacturing chops (which includes everyone we're still talking to), a creative and capable design team, and good communications skills. They'll also have to commit to make the Model 01 on a sane schedule at a competitive price.
Why two? We're certainly not going to be setting up two competing assembly lines at the same time, but we need to make sure we have a good manufacturer and a "hot spare" in case something goes wrong again. From there, we'll hand over the Model 01's design to them to optimize for manufacturing.
Asking manufacturers to help us figure out the right design for the interconnect and feet has been an incredibly useful filter. Every manufacturer has a different way they want to finalize the designs of the interconnect and feet. Some folks come back with really clever designs that exactly hit our written requirements. And some hand us options that confirm only that they never glanced at our spec. There are a number of similar proposals, but there are also some really interesting outliers. About half of the shops have recommended that we swap out the metal bottom plate of the Model 01 for one molded out of ABS or a mixture of ABS and Polycarbonate. Initially, we were very, very skeptical of this idea, but the more we look at it the more reasonable it is. If we go that route, your Model 01 will be a bit lighter, we'll be able to do a better job protecting the USB and interconnect ports and we might be able to hide the feet inside the enclosure when they're not in use. If we do go that route, we'll be paying particular attention to the quality of the plastic—if it doesn't make the Model 01 a nicer keyboard, we won't do it.
In the meantime, we're working on the firmware, updating the website a bit and starting to get ready for more trips to Shenzhen or Taipei as we move into the manufacturing phase.
We'll be at the Bay Area Maker Faire from May 20 to May 22. We're not sure where our booth will be just yet, but follow @keyboardio on Twitter and we'll tell you as soon as we know. Tickets are available for pre-order!