Everyone likes to win, and we’re no exception. This month, we won the distinguished Tibbetts award, which the USA Small Business Administration gives annually to a handful of the companies that it’s funded through its Small Business Innovative Research grants. The award recognizes companies “for the critical role they play in research and development for the government and for their success in driving innovation and creating new jobs.” This year eighteen companies received Tibbetts awards, which — considering that the SBIR program funds over $2.5 billion each year in eleven government departments and agencies — makes it a pretty big deal. And props back at you, NSF: we wouldn’t be where we are today without our early funding from the National Science Foundation.
Hi Internet. I’m Nev. I’m an engineer here at Modular Robotics.
Remember this post about the big decision to build a factory here in Boulder, Colorado? I’m one of the results of that decision. I was hired in March to help design and build automation systems to build and test thousands and thousands of tiny robots.
A big part of engineering is understanding the requirements of the customer so that their needs can be met. In the past, I’ve done engineering work for all kinds of folks. I worked on medical devices for a while, so I got to hang out with doctors and nurses and EMTs to learn about how they used existing medical devices and what they’d like to change. Later, I worked with a company building big robots to repair water and oil pipelines, so I met with beefy construction workers and contractors to learn about what kind of abuse a robot might expect on a worksite.
Now I’m making robotic toys for kids, so I spent a day with Christie, Sawyer, and Michael at STEMosphere in Denver, Colorado. This is a free convention to encourage creativity and entrepreneurship in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. There were all kinds of science-y exhibits where kids could do things like rip apart old office electronics, engage in epic robot battle, shoot off pneumatic rockets, learn to solder, and lots more. This was a really cool opportunity, since it gave us a chance to introduce and demonstrate Cubelets to kids, parents, and teachers, and it also let me experience how kids interacted with Cubelets and gave me insight into the most effective ways to build and test the toys.
We showed up early to hang the Cubelets banner above our booth.
Perhaps a bit too early.
A cup (or three) of coffee later, we were ready to go.
A short while later, the kids started showing up. In droves. I had heard rumors of the amazing power of Cubelets to draw a crowd, and after only a couple hours our table had been pushed back to the bleachers. We had to clear everyone out for a moment to pick the table up and move it back to the line of booths.
I got to build a couple of my favorite robots, like the steering bot and the line follower. The kids got to build a bunch of their favorite robots, like this awesome lighthouse.
One of the coolest things was seeing kids who had never played with Cubelets before figure out how to use them. It starts with pure structure: they stick Cubelets together to make something that looks like what they want to build. Then, as they play more, they start to understand the different functions of each Cubelet, and alter their creations to perform a desired action. This is where one of the really cool things about Cubelets becomes apparent: the form and function of every robot are directly linked. As kids realized this, the robots became more and more advanced.
I think that the most amazing thing was seeing the kids’ reactions change as they played. When they first start building with Cubelets, they are a bit mystified by them. Then maybe a bit of confusion, and some frustration. Then comes understanding, and finally wonder at what they have created.
Seeing this reminded me of why I became an engineer. Sure, part of engineering is about identifying and meeting customer needs as efficiently as possible…but it’s also about playing, learning, and creating. I think it’s wonderful that events like STEMosphere exist to show kids the amazing things science can do, and I’m really proud to be building toys that are helping to create thousands and thousands of tiny engineers.
What does deep space have to do with Cubelets? I have both funny and serious answers to that question.
Serious first: Someday I hope to see students at camps thinking about NASA, space ventures to Mars and beyond, astro-biology, and robotics using Cubelets. It goes without saying that I wouldn’t be working here if I didn’t have an almost religious belief in the importance of all students understanding the principles of science. But I have maybe even a stronger desire for all students to appreciate and experience that amazing undertakings are achieved in little steps. Moreover, the greatest feats are accomplished and accumulate most appreciably when teams of dedicated people bring the full weight of their technical expertise, skills and knowledge, and personality to bear on a team. Sometimes I explain Cubelets robots to young children this way – that each function contributes its work to a larger process and becomes part of a “team” that makes a robot. But, if we’re really talking about huge, massive, previously unthinkable accomplishments it would be almost insulting not to mention Curiosity because nothing beats a seriously cool robot landing on Mars or seeing a room full of engineers celebrate years of work coming to fruition. Plus, in case you missed it, one of those engineers is now immortalized as “Mohawk Guy.” Rad.
Now for the less-than-serious: I’m one of the older people here at Modular Robotics and grew up on The Muppets. I really can’t hear the word “space” and not also think “Pigs in.” It was epic, and always one of my favorite segments. Just that echoing voice saying it, “Piiiiigggs Iiiinnn Spaay-yaaccee.” Yes.
So, when we began discussing a collaboration with a business owner who told us his venture was called Deep Space Parker I was a more than a little intrigued. Over the weeks of talking to Deep Space Parker’s founder, Brian, we’ve become good friends and we consider him a great example of a non-traditional educator. As in, he may not have a degree in education or lead a classroom of 2nd graders but that’s not stopping him from wanting to contribute to the local education scene. When he invited us to not only exhibit but to teach a short robot class, of course the answer was yes!
In addition to seeing our good friends and early-adopters of Cubelets, Ameribotics, we also got a chance to interact with other tech and robotics programs for kids including Sharc and FIRST Robotics as well as several others. It’s great to be part of such an esteemed group, but for me the real motivation to do events like this is to put Cubelets into the hands of kids and educators. The best moments are when a child first hooks up a Battery, Sense, and action Cube and they make the classic Oh-My-GOODNESS face of joy and awe as they see they’ve created a robot that does something cool. This moment is always so brief as kids then get down to business – once they’ve made one robot that works they set themselves very quickly to the task of making more, bigger, and more sophisticated robots!
One of the things that’s so great about building robots with Cubelets is that it’s so scalable. Little roboticists, like this 3 year-old, can get a handle on building simple, yet incredibly satisfying, robots.
At the same time a middle-schooler at our table can be considering what it means to have a robot with multiple senses and multiple actions.
Exhibiting is fun, especially when you’re working with fun team mates
But I was especially psyched to teach a short robotics workshop for parents and kids to build robots together.
One of the things I love most about the kinds of learning Cubelets robots lends itself to is that parents and kids start out on an equal footing. It’s an awesome feeling to see parents and kids trying ideas together, testing out a theory, making joint design decisions, and teaching each other as they figure out the sense-think-act relationships they’re building.
One of the better moments of the night was when Deep Space Founder, Brian, took some time out from his evening to come and play at our table. He brought along a Cubelets expert, his daughter. She got him up to speed quickly, and then he asked me for some challenges. He and his daughter worked really hard to understand how to best use the Think blocks in their joint robot build.
I left them with a challenge and Brian has been emailing me with updates ever since then. Cubelets on the brain, as well as in Deep Space then!
I’m looking forward to seeing how Brian and Deep Space move forward with creating a multi-use space for office-share during the day and a space for after-school programs and events at night. Thanks for having us!
Since the first week of my employment with Modular Robotics, I’ve been hearing production staff talk about the process of getting a stencil printer with great enthusiasm. Someone talked to the vendor and mentioned that a stencil printer had been found for a good price on my second or third day here. Then, there was work involved to determine price and how to get it here. More talk of the much-anticipated stencil printer the next week in order to plan going to see it, get a basic training on running it, and make sure it worked. It’s been mentioned in our daily staff meeting roughly once a week, for one reason or another, for the last 12 weeks. But the thing that caused MY ears to perk up was when someone casually mentioned, “Yeah, when we load in a new piece of equipment, we rent a forklift. Wanna drive it? It’s fun.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, the stencil printer is a sleek and space-age-looking piece of machinery. I don’t want to diminish the importance of this piece of machinery that’s been awaited so eagerly. ( I have it on good authority that we’ll be blogging about all of the wonderful things it will mean for the incremental upgrade of Cubelets production in the very near future.) But, a stencil printer sits in one place and a forklift not only GOES but lifts things. I cannot tell a lie – I was pretty dern excited about the forklift. Especially after hearing about it for weeks! As it turns out, I didn’t get to drive it (and you’ll see why), but never fear, I know we’ll rent a forklift again. And in the meantime, our forklift fun illustrates some of the things I most adore about working here – the creative and entrepreneurial impulse to just jump in and try things, our collaborative problem solving culture, and our seemingly boundless ability to laugh at ourselves.
Enjoy a re-cap of our stencil printer delivery and forklift fun via these pictures and captions – it was an interesting week.
April 14, 2013 – On the day before the stencil printer arrived . . .
It started snowing like it meant business, but this deterred no one from cleaning up our factory floor . . . and then jumping in our new dumpster.
Of course, we’d all forgotten that all of the snow from earlier in the week melted, transforming our lawn into a silent trap for the mighty, but heavy, forklift.
Sadly, our friend the forklift was stuck. But we were good-natured about it, assuming that with all our combined skill-sets we could solve this dilemma. Surely, with the number of engineers here alone, that would take care of it!
We tried lifting it UP (Go, go gadget pallet jack!)
These attempts were to no avail. So, in a last ditch effort, we tried “polo-malletting” wood under the tires.
We tried lots of things, and though our character building was great, and our critical thinking well-honed, our friend the forklift was still stuck. In the end, the answer was simple.
I just returned to Boulder after a lovely week totally unplugged in Panama. First off-grid week since 2011! We snorkeled and surfed and ate fish and fruit. I read books and relaxed, and barely thought about work at all except for one anagnorisis that happened in the middle of the night.
I woke up and looked out the open sides of our little thatch-roofed cabin to see the moonlight flickering on the ocean swell as it rolled lazily onto the beach. The thought occurred to me that Modular Robotics was happily functioning while I was gone. We’ve put together such a great team that I’m not even really necessary for day-to-day functioning of the company. I can leave, turn off my phone for a week, and we keep pumping out Cubelets.
If I think about our company as a little train, we’ve built the train cars, loaded up on fuel, figured out how to mix drinks in the bar car, and left the station. It will happily chug along for a while without the need for me to walk up and down its length chatting with passengers and crew and patrolling for problems. I suppose that I could even just get off the train more often, and I probably will. The realization here was more profound, though. With the train carrying on smoothly, I’m free to head to the caboose, pull out some maps, do some reading, and determine where I think the train should go.
I’m the CEO. It probably seems obvious to you that my role should focus primarily on strategy and direction. While that seems fairly obvious to me in the abstract, it took a little time away and a different setting to make it seem real in the present. I think the reason for my slow uptake has everything to do with our growth. When there were two of us, I designed circuits and sourced magnets and wrote code. When there were ten, I answered questions and did a lot of hiring and wrangled our bookkeeping. Strategy and direction happened at interstitial times: at night, over a meal, or during a flight. Over the last couple of years we’ve made hires sequentially, and each new team member has taken a role that I muddled through, and filled it fully and expertly. Now that the train is rolling, our next hire is someone to focus not on operations, but on strategy, new products, team building, and design. That hire is me!
We have a sign on our production floor that says “Fail early, Fail often.” The application of this idea is simple and manifold in manufacturing Cubelets – it’s vastly better to have any number of parts fail to meet expectations early in the process of building Cubelets than to have a whole Cubelet assembled and then fail to work. This makes perfect sense but applying this strategy to my own “production” of classroom activities and lesson plans was a little challenging. It’s hard to foresee what might NOT work in a plan you’re generating when it’s on paper. And unlike Cubelets, plans on paper are hard to quality test in our factory.
So, I headed out to spend a few days in the classrooms of a wonderful school we are lucky to have a great relationship with. I know a little bit about working with a classroom of exuberant 6 year olds, or too-smart-for-their-own-good 9 year olds and lots of ages in between. I’ve taught a variety of topics in a variety of venues to students of a range of ages in the last 18 years. I’ve learned that there is one truth that pervades every class I’ve ever been charged with leading no matter who, what, or where I was teaching. Here it is – are you ready? Whatever you plan to do in a class, you must also plan to do things you hadn’t planned on. In other words, a lesson plan should include the elbow room to pounce on what is moving students closer to the discovery and understanding you’re targeting even if that means re-arranging parts of what you thought you would do. So, as I headed out of our office for a couple of days, my mission was pretty simple – I wanted to teach, using one of my classroom plans for Cubelets, and see for myself how it played out with real students, their real questions, and in a real classroom.
In large part, I was looking for any glaring gaps or problems – places where my lesson plan wasn’t coming in for a landing, or ideas the kids couldn’t connect with the robots they were making. Were my plans too ambitious? Too detailed? Not detailed enough? Fun? Boring? Observing “out in the field” answered all of those questions, raised others, and gave me a clear picture of what ideas students most actively cultured given Cubelets and these challenges.
But it also reminded me of something very fundamental about how I see education. Kids are “little scientists.” Without having the language for it, without a formal research proposal and with no grant money or fancy lab coats, kids are actively engaged in testing theories throughout their days. It’s their primary operating mode and they carry it out tacitly but very seriously in nearly all that they do. Piaget first stated this idea, and as he observed more and more children he added more detail to his proposed stages of child development. The overarching idea, revolutionary at the time, is that children engage in trying to make sense of their environments actively rather than just passively receiving information or being uploaded wholesale information, as onto a blank slate.
Like any theory, Piaget’s isn’t perfect. There are more articulated versions of it, and less articulated versions, but the idea that kids are capable of developing ideas about what they encounter in the world and then revising them as they obtain more data informed the work of other great thinkers (Chomsky, Vygotsky, and Papert) in fields including Linguistics and Modern Cognition, Child Development, Math, and Computational Thinking and Education.
Watching students ages 5-12 taking on the task of being “robot investigators” this “Little Scientist” model of how kids learn and reconcile their worlds seemed inescapable. I asked students to use observations of robot “behavior” or reactions to try and work backwards to find the cause. Students engaged deeply in the task of figuring out what their robots liked, would do, and which inputs corresponded with which outputs in order to best understand what their robot was sensing and why their robot was reacting as it did. Part of my lesson plan was about robotics, and part of my lesson plan was about biology and behavior, and a third part was about scientific method and critical thinking. (I’m the kind of educator that thinks learning these skills not only can but should be handled in inter-disciplinary ways.) I was thrilled with how sophisticated students were in proposing methods to test their theories and how industrious and boisterous they were in carrying out their plans and tickled by how gleefully students’ reported “We have a theory!” But what astounded me was that students pressed further into questions about what the robot knows or how the sensor worked. Students posed questions about robotics and behavior that I anticipated but I also got queries about what counts as “knowing” something, questions that pointed towards complexity and emergent behavior, biology, and what counts as “being alive” and impromptu musings on how brains work and what parts of them might be contained in a robot. Philosophy’s deepest conundrums exposed by children under five feet tall, no joke.
Scientists get used to looking for the fault lines in their theories and are trained to lay out their experiment design so that their methods have narrow parameters and their hypothesis are built to be discredited rather than confirmed. Although the “Little Scientists” I worked with didn’t have this training, they were perfectly capable of adapting their ideas to accommodate new information, even if that information complicated or undermined an explanation they had been busily shoring up just moments ago. In some cases I saw students pause in order to deeply reconsider their hypothesis and start over, but in most cases students were visibly excited by having more information, more insight, more to account for, even if it meant scrapping their idea and reworking from the ground up. I know adults, professionals, who could make fabulous use of the enthusiasm these students had for the “Fail early, fail often” principle – they seemed not just to abide it but to welcome the chance to absorb more data and revise.
In that spirit, I returned from my jaunt with a new motivation to look at what I had created and to re-work, rewrite, and revise. I’d seen six and seven year olds mournfully announce that “this robot is NOT listening to my words. I’m using my words like I’m supposed to and it’s not paying attention” and then be reminded that robots might be sensing other things than words. They immediately re-tasked themselves to find out what the robot could be responding to and to expand their thinking about a plausible explanation. It’s hard to not learn the lesson that testing things out and being willing to keep testing, refining, and amending is the way to be.
With that in mind, here is an open invitation to try out our first Cubelets activities at home, in your classes, at an after-school program, or a camp, and tell us what worked, what you liked, how your students responded, and suggestions you have for improvements or next activities. Last week I used the lesson plans on Robots and Behavior, but I’ve also posted activities for Robots and Sensing, Properties and Characteristics, and Cause and Effect. They can all be found in the Education section of our Forum and start with the title “Cubelets Activity”. It would be wonderful to hear from educators of all varieties as they take a look at these and have thoughts about ways to make them better, suggested next activities, or feedback on how your students and kids responded. We plan on revising and re-working these many times. Theories are made to be tested, and the only way to do it is to get lots of data so we’re actively inviting you to be part of this exciting development with us, test these out, and then talk to us about them! Help us fail – I know from my time with young ones how informative failures can be!
Many, many thanks to The Colorado Springs School for their willingness to let me try things in their classes!
Thanks for the photo, Sawyer!
This robot made of only Distance and Flashlight Cubelets (and, of course, a Battery Cubelet) has been on our coffee table at Modular Robotics for weeks. Wave your hands over the surface and the Flashlight Cubelets light up. It’s fun to play with, and can be easily reconfigured to different layouts.
My first science project involved growing 84 bean plants and measuring how they fared when watered with varied salinity solutions. All I really had to do was measure the salt and water, bottle it, and then grow the plants and water them on schedule. The next year I set my sights on something harder and collaborated with UCONN Avery Point’s Project Oceanology to identify possible ways of obtaining clams. Why clams? Well, I’d done a summer project with Project Oceanology on clam kidney stones indicating water pollution and I wanted to extend my research. More clams! More sites!
There I was, an eighth grader, reaching out to marine research facilities and asking them if they would afford me access to the clams they obtained. I bought fancy paper and wrote letters introducing my previous results and the hypothesis and scope of this project. Then I proposed that if they were doing species collection, could they please give me clams that would otherwise just be counted and thrown back in exchange for sharing my data and results? I learned the term “Principal Investigator” and appealed to those people through the Environmental Protection Agency and state colleges around Connecticut. In addition to writing letters, I learned to interpret water quality data, mastered lab equipment, and I had to make good on my promise to share data and results. I even had an innovative moment because the middle-school science classroom I was in outfitted me to titrate, dissect, centrifuge, and use a microscope, but had nothing powerful enough for me to lever open the clams’ stubborn shells. Problem solved – my friends and I gleefully discovered that dropping the clams from over our heads onto the pavement did the trick – after all, I didn’t need the clams or their shells, just their kidneys.
I think this is the value of doing a science project – the perseverance to follow research through and break it into manageable pieces, the realization that even if you choose a topic you are enamored with you will likely cross discipline lines to bring it to fruition, and the unforeseen problems along the way (I have vivid memories of those kersplatted clams imprinted on my memory). So, when I was offered the chance to judge Boulder Valley School District’s High School and Middle School Science Fair, I leapt at the chance.
Immediately, I thought, What a great opportunity to partner with the schools here while wearing a name-tag that says, “Christie Veitch, Modular Robotics.” But, to be honest, my motivations ran deeper than making contacts in our backyard. We’ve been having this conversation about STEM education during my first month here and discovering over and over that true STEM ed is mostly only happening in ways that are self-selected by students and parents. Because curricula standards still point mostly at Science and Math, and because those are usually taught as separate subjects, there isn’t very much interdisciplinary STEM for all students. While some great schools offer electives in computer programing or in engineering and production or even Pre-engineering Programs, most are addressing students’ interests in science, technology, engineering, and math through after-school clubs or other out-of-school opportunities. I figured that if Modular Robotics is going to be in the business of trying to re-shape how STEM can be hands-on, fun, and interdisciplinary in school, I wanted to see examples of what students can do when given that opportunity and some resources and support.
As it turns out, they can do a LOT. Some students were apprenticed to college laboratories, and others developed research or engineered and tested new products on their own. Some worked alone and others in teams. I was assigned to judge engineering projects but saw projects as diverse as using Chitosan (ground up shrimp tails!) to create scaffolds for new human tissue to grow on to using algae to produce fuel to cryogenic cooling mechanisms to to biometric gun safety handles to potato cannons and water balloon launchers.
Engineering is a broad category, it seems, and in any case where a student made something new or tested the feasibility of producing a new mechanism, they were considered an “E” project. Time and again, I saw that the best projects, regardless of mentoring or group vs. individual research, were the ones where students had to look beyond one academic discipline – potato cannons require knowledge of physics and chemistry, and while building tissue scaffolds is engineering, it’s also biology. Some of the best projects I saw combined biology or behavioral science with electrical or product engineering. Those students thought clearly about the next steps and potential applications of their research and many had to teach themselves to use Arduino or to program in Python in order to make the leap from concept to producing a working something. As I asked students questions about their designs and tests, I heard many stories of iterative attempts to make a breadboard circuit do their bidding or last-minute trip to Home Depot to get a part they hadn’t anticipated but suddenly realized they needed.
After my day at the fair, as I told stories of algae fuel and biometric firearm safeties or chairs outfitted with a design allowing students to lean back and not fall over, a paraphrase of a response I heard more than a couple of times was, “Hmm, privileged kids/schools have lots of resources to do this.” It’s true – Boulder Valley School district probably offers more resources and support for these STEM-focused students than most public schools in the land. But, for me, the story was, Look what students CAN do when given the opportunity to aim bigger than the assignment for this week or what’s been whittled down into this chapter. See what self-direction and initiative and resources and support can produce – clever engineering that is relevant in today’s world and projects that succeeded precisely because they had little regard for which discipline they belonged to but, instead, voraciously pursued the best methods and answers to their questions and challenges.
To me this is the hopeful story about STEM – it doesn’t have to be divided into its components in order for learning to take place. (In fact, that division is probably an invention of perceived necessity in order to define what is testable; kids care about it not at all.) But my day at the fair was also an optimistic realization about students – they are curious about how things work or don’t work, and enthusiastically participate in posing their own solutions. They will dive headlong into their interests, even (and sometimes especially) when it requires research and skills far beyond their experience. It strikes me that seeing what students can do when given access to resources and support and the chance to pose real questions is a better bar to set than matching tests and books up to a list of the minimum objectives, but that’s the subject for another blog post. For now, I’m just honored to have seen some really cool science, and to have met with kids and teachers that believe this kind of student work is not only feasible, but deeply worthwhile.
We just made a fairly monumental decision that almost everyone in the toy industry will tell you is asinine. We decided to build a big factory in Boulder, Colorado, and manufacture all of our products ourselves.
Electronic stuff is mostly made in China. It’s been that way for a while. Modular Robotics has a tiny factory here in Boulder, but it seemed obvious to almost everyone that as we scaled up to making millions of tiny robots each year, we’d move manufacturing to a contract manufacturer (CM) in China who would make our stuff and send us pallets of shrink-wrapped robot kits.
We have a lot of parts made for us in China. The stamped metal Cubelet connector pieces are made in Wuxi, and the plastic Cubelet shells are injection molded in Zhuhai. These parts get sent to us via UPS and we build the electronics and assemble and test everything in Boulder. It’s not trivial to get things made all the way across the world, so I’ve been visiting China once or twice a year for the last 3 years to oversee production, solve little problems on the factory floor, and audit our factories. During my most recent trip in December 2012, I visited three different CMs to begin figuring out how we might have them manufacture Cubelets (and our next product) for us.
It was a crazy few days. One CM’s mould making shop had a dirt floor. Another had ten thousand people working there and we drove through the campus in a golf cart. One had lighting so bad I could barely navigate, another had a museum of products they make that included almost every toy you might think of. But one difference between the factories struck me: at the low-end factories (they call them Tier 3), there were people everywhere. 3 workers ran each injection moulding machine, placing inserts, removing parts, trimming flash, and touching up funny white streaks with a hair dryer. The mid-level factory had fewer people, they seemed to simply have labor that was better organized to do several things at once. But at the high-end, tier 1 factories, there was nobody around. The moulding machines whizzed and klunked along on their own, aided by robotized jigs that removed parts and filled bins that ran on tracks. One worker supervised four SMT lines, simply maintaining the conveyorized, automatic machines as they did their work. China is known for its cheap labor force. Why so much automation to reduce the number of workers, I asked? The answer was simple: labor rates have increased tremendously in the last ten years.
Wait a minute. If Chinese labor costs have gotten so expensive that we need to build a robotized, automated assembly line, why would we build it in China, exactly halfway around the world, instead of in our back yard?
On the long flight home, I convinced myself that we could build our own factory, right here in Boulder, to make our tiny robots. I convinced myself that on a certain level, it’s pretty much insane to build products all of the way around the world just because the people there are poorer. I convinced myself that it would be fun, interesting, and a generally good thing to do for the world. I convinced myself to make a really unlikely decision.
There’s an alternative, by the way, that lots of companies are taking: chasing cheap labor. Huge factories are popping up in Vietnam and Thailand, Mexico, even Burma. But honestly, this seems short sighted. I don’t think it’s ethical or sustainable. I just don’t think it’s cool.
I called a couple of people that weekend to talk through the idea of manufacturing robots at scale here in the old USA. That’s where the word, “asinine” came from. A friend who works for a clothing manufacturer suggested that I must have eaten some really bad Chinese food on my trip. I was undeterred.
I’m in the unique and interesting position of being able to make big decisions for our company without giving a shit what anybody else thinks. I sort of like having that card up my sleeve but I felt like this was the wrong decision on which to play it. If we ended up building a factory in the USA just because I said so, it could quickly turn into Eric’s Folly. It seemed dumb to make a decision like this without full consensus; otherwise, when things invariably started to go wrong, it’d be because of my stupid idea. So we formed a Manufacturing Task Force to explore the ramifications of building our robots here and not in China.
There are four of us on the task force: me, Tascha (Director of Finance), Scott (Director of Supply Chain), and Matthew (Head of Production). We bought blue terrycloth headbands that we wear both to remind ourselves of the importance of our task force and to ensure that we look like huge dorks. We’re a good mix of preconceived notions. I started out staunchly in favor of USA manufacturing, and Tascha thought it would be impossible. Scott has ten years of experience with Chinese manufacturing, and Matt, who oversees our mini-factory, was eager to expand it but admittedly a bit glassy-eyed when looking at the number of tiny robots we expect to manufacture over the next year or two. We decided to take no more than eight weeks to build out a financial model of the alternatives and see what the bottom line looked like.
The finished model is pretty complicated. I’ll break it down a bit in a future article. We took what we know about making all of the Cubelets we’ve made to date, and compared it with quotes from contract manufacturers, and projected these options out over time. That part was pretty easy; the interesting part was assigning costs to some of the “soft” metrics involved. Is it worth anything to be able to say, “Made in the USA” on our box? How much more innovative can we be with production and engineering co-located? What’s that worth? How much is the annoyance of flying for 14 hours worth over just walking downstairs? There is no straight conversion from annoyance to yuan, but we tried to put numbers on everything we could think of.
I’ll digress for a moment to let you know that I feel like data isn’t always the best answer to a question. This kills our engineers. But seriously; fundamentally we’re all ruled by predictable physics, but we can’t plan for the future at an atomic level. The “data” that we use for something like a business decision is so high-level and abstract that it can be misleading and certainly incomplete. I’m not saying that there’s magic involved, just science and causality that we don’t understand yet. Thanks Dave, for the pointer to David Brooks’ recent article that does a much better job of explaining this than I am doing.
Even a huge amount of data can’t predict the future. But we can talk about trends and I can say confidently that I think the difference in cost between manufacturing in the USA or China is decreasing and will continue to do so. Ten years ago, it was a no-brainer; manufacturing was outsourced. But recently we’ve seen big companies like GE and Apple bring some manufacturing to the USA. I first went to China in 2008 and witnessing the change in cost and economic climate since then has made me confident that making stuff in the USA, while still not as cheap as in China, is getting much more attractive.
The last two paragraphs might sound a little bit like justification. They are. At the end of the eight weeks, we didn’t end up with a clear answer that making tiny robots in the USA would be cheaper. Nor did we end up with the opposite answer. We ended up in between. All of our soft costs were estimated as a range. If we calculated based on one side of the range, we’d end up with “do it ourselves.” If we calculated toward the other limit, we’d end up with “have a factory in China do it.” We did end up with the conclusion that we could, in fact, do it one way or the other and have a high likelihood of success.
So we decided to build a big factory and make our robots here in Boulder. Woo! The task force is into it, I’m into it, the Board of Directors is into it, and our whole team is into it. When the task force announced its decision to everyone at scrum, a couple of assembly elves even piped up spontaneously to talk about how amped they were to work for a company that made stuff they were proud of. Thanks Kristen and Joe!
We’ll keep our injection molding and metal stamping in China for now, but examine bringing them over here after we’ve figured out the other parts of our manufacturing-at-scale process. We’ve already been working on getting a stencil printer, board washer, and AOI for our SMT electronics line. We’ve hired four new employees in the last couple of weeks. And we’re looking around at big (15k square foot) manufacturing spaces in town.
It’s going to be an interesting couple of years. I’ll try to write often about how it’s going robotizing and automating our little factory. Know anyone who wants a job building tiny robots?