Paying dues as a small business owner, ship holds, longshoremen labor disputes, and the importance of documentation and delegation.

I've always told people that until a child comes along, being a small business owner trying to make it doing boutique manufacturing here in the US has got to be one of the most educational and humbling experiences  I will have.  So let's take a look at some of the reasons why I have not quit my day job, and some of the challenges we've been overcoming in the last few weeks.

Ship Hold.

After multiple delays, we've started shipping Kossel Pros.  Unfortunately, we are not out of the woods.  While we've asked for, and received, and qualified assemblies with incredibly detailed documentation and a rigid first article inspection (FAI) process, we found an unacceptable amount of error in our final kitted printers.  

Now the printers do work well, and the feedback so far from everyone who had been able to get their hands on one, had been very positive.  (Here's a photo stream from one of our early bird backers, and here's another forum member who received printer 001 showing off his prints).  The bad news is that virtually every kit that we've shipped in the past week seemed to have errors, and we've spent many times the dollar amount shipping replacement parts to backers than what these parts are actually worth.  So we made the decision last week to stop shipping kits and perform a 100% inspection on all our inventory, as well as to disassemble all our kitted kits for 100% inspection.

What we found was that some kits were ok.  Some kits, about 10% error.  (For comparison, we expect from our overseas contract manufacturers a 98% yield, on a mature product, and we expect 100% of the failures to be caught by end-of-line testing, so that no bad product makes it into the hands of the consumer.  Higher volume manufacturers should have even higher yield percentages).  On our ball joints though, the failure rate was over 90% mistake.  (Wrong screws packaged with the kits).  Compounding the issue is that the Kossel Pro is a kit of kits; about 13 kits make up the Kossel Pro HBP, and a single error in one of the 13 kits is the difference between a happy customer and a frustrated one.  

Earlier today, myself, my lovely wife Rachel, and Mike spent the entire day recounting screws, plastic parts and bearings:

Frankly, the time for "all hands on deck" to fix the problem is long overdue (it didn't help that it was Thanksgiving week last week and most of us were scattered into the winds due to family obligations) and between Rachel, Mike and I, we managed to form and self-organize a miniature assembly line pretty well.  It was a long day of work, but we managed to get EVERY kit on that shelf inspected.  We also were able to put a significant dent in the kitting process to catch back up.  In the next few days I will be able to rework the ball joint parts and we should be able to lift the ship hold hopefully Wednesday or so.  

For those who are curious:  We did a 100% inspection on an average of 3-5 samples per assembly, then we  used a weight scale to get an average weight across a few assemblies.  We primarily used our 1.5 kg, 50mg resolution counting scale, but we also have at our disposal a 30kg, 1g resolution counting scale, as well as a 50g, 1mg resolution scale.  If the weight deviated by more than 1g, we would set it aside for a more detailed look (often a 100% visual inspection).

We primarily scan for missing plastic parts, missing specialty hardware, and missing hardware such as screws.  We weren't so concerned about fasteners covered by the fastener packs, or M3 nuts, for that matter.  What we'll do is we'll increase the fastener variety in the "Ooopsie Bag" and we'll use that to compensate for a miscount.  (For most of the assemblies, we've already included extra nuts in case the builder loses a fastener or two in building the kit, this would be an extra precaution).  

Finally, in for the next batch of printers that we'll build, we've already found a Chinese supplier that will offer counting and kitting of the fasteners.  Not surprisingly, they are able to offer all the fasteners, counted and kitted, at less than half the cost of us buying raw fasteners here in bulk (20,000+) in the US.  

We will resume shipping of kits this week and we'll give a progress update later this week on shipping progress.

Longshoremen Labor Dispute:

There is an ongoing, ugly labor dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), representing the longshoremen of the west coast ports, and the port operators.  In an effort to "negotiate", the union workers have been organizing labor "slowdowns", sometimes walking off halfway through a shift, etc.  

Now, I am a strong proponent of workers’ rights - paying a living wage, building a strong middle class, etc.  But it should be worth pointing out that Longshoremen are amongst the highest paid blue collar work force in the nation – a lot of these guys make as much, if not more money than the average Silicon Valley software developer.  The labor dispute is unlikely about pay – the last few labor disputes have been the union taking a hard line against deployment of automations and technology (which would make the port more efficient, but potentially taking jobs away from the union – and as a technologist, I have zero respect for anyone opposing the deployment of technology and the efficiency gains that comes with it for the greater good of a community in order to profit personally.  And, incidentally, this is the same union that refused to unload Bertha, the tunnel boring machine for digging the Alaskan viaduct replacement, unless members of their union were given high paying jobs unloading the dirt from said TBM.  )

In the case of our OpenBeam extrusions, our overseas vendor slipped the delivery by a week due to backlog from their summer vacation, and due to congestion, our merchandise sat on the outgoing cargo terminal for an extra week to wait for room on a cargo ship.  (These ships only sail once a week, so if you miss one, the next sailing is a full week away).  Although our merchandise was supposed to dock on Nov 9th, the severe port congestion caused the boat to sail away to offload at Vancouver BC, before returning a week later to unload, and it took an extra week to get our merchandise out of the docks.  (Fortunately, with Expeditors, they can perform customs clearance while the merchandise is out on the water).  So, a shipment with an original projected dock date of "End of October" didn't actually get delivered until two days after I left for Thanksgiving with my in-laws).  

(Above:  The suspension on Mike's Izusu Rodeo, before and after loading the OpenBeam shipment.   It took 3 trips to haul - it takes a lot of material to stay in stock consistently.  Thanks Mikey for moving all the goods while we were out of town! :-) ).

One of the things that we've done right, fortunately, was to build a strategic reserves of our biggest sellers.  We were successful in keeping on hand a backup supply of our signature 1m long extrusions, as well as our Mini Kossel kits.  In fact, we were able to sell a portion of our strategic reserves to the MakerLibre Kossel kick starter campaign ahead of the quoted end-of-October delivery schedule to help them get kits into their backer's hands.  Now that we've received our merchandise, we've trans-shipped these critical kits to Amazon's fulfillment centers already to guard against disruption to our ability to supply the market (ie, running out of stock).  We've also shipped the balance of MakerLibre's order.

Precut kits are a little harder for us, due to the fact that dealers carry this kit and it's much harder for us to make a projection on what our dealers will order.  We've ran out of Precut Kits (we've been out for a few weeks) and with kitting resources focused on the Kossel campaign, we'll try to get the precut kits back onto Amazon as soon as we can.  

Documentation (internal)

We've done a pretty good job with our kitting instruction and documentation, and as such we've already spun up additional kitting resources to help package these kits.  Due to the issues we've been having, Mike and I will perform 100% QC on all assemblies received from our kitters and we will perform the final kitting into the printer kits.  This is the only way we can be sure that the QC issues are behind us (at least for this batch of machines).  

Documentation (Customer Facing)

Before flying out to Chicago, I pulled an all nighter disassembling one of our test printers and photographing most of the steps in detail.  These pictures were uploaded to my OneDrive account, and brave early bird backers have been able to use some of these pictures to make good progress on their machines.  Between family obligations (and on the flights to and from Chicago) I was able to make some updates to the assembly instructions to the Kossel Pro.  

These documents are work in progress (hence the WR in the revision number, for "Working Revision".  We don't like publishing customer facing documentation without proof reading, but we also hate to imagine people staring at boxes without instructions, and we certainly don't want to replace any parts because someone built something wrong.  Over the next few days I'll continue to make stabs at these instructions to get them fleshed out.  (Today's work yielded lots of reject assemblies, which would also help with work instructions and illustrating some of the steps that were skipped.  We will eventually build these parts into the pre-built machines that we have promised for the kickstarter campaign, as well as for engineering testing).

We've opted for PowerPoint as the medium for our assembly instructions.  The thought here is that just about everyone owns a tablet or laptop, and PowerPoint formatted slides display much better on a landscape-oriented screen.  


Remember those printers that went out to engineering partner companies?  They've now had some time with these printers and are doing really awesome things with them.   Early last week, MatterHackers returned some suggestions for firmware tuning, and we'll be testing them on our printer and loading this firmware onto outgoing Brainwave Pro boards.  We are also finding that with the HBP, we really do need an external fan aimed at the printer for print cooling.  I will share out our slicer profiles later this week, but in the meantime, enjoy the following pictures. all printed on the Kossel Pro with HBP:

That's it for this update.  We'll give as shorter update later in the week with an update on the shipping list.