Adventures in Manufacturing: lessons learned so far + January progress

For those new to discovering the project or who have not followed as closely, please do not be scared by what you will read below! All Brand New Model F manufacturing and other issues were successfully resolved last year and none of the below issues affect the delivery of the orders, expected to start mid-year now that the parts are sitting at the factory waiting to be assembled.  I will reiterate that the factory is expected to assemble the keyboards starting in March (after returning from Chinese New Year break) and get them on a container ship as soon as the first 500 or so are finished.

January progress:

  • This week I will be receiving samples from the completely redesigned and newly built spring-flipper attacher machines (photo below of one of them).
  • Given the failures of the spring attacher machine repair attempts last year, this month the factory started over on the spring attacher and built a machine with a new design. From the video tests the factory showed me of the assembled springs, there is a near-100% success rate of the attacher!
  • The new design eliminates the horizontal movement of the posts holding the springs and instead just moves along one axis.
  • I think the spring sound video I sent them helped highlight the importance of an attachment that matches the spring-nub spacing and spring angle specifications. 3 machines have been built so far, each one assembling 3 at a time. They will be making some more of these attacher machines in March after their break, maybe as many as 9.
  • The dye sublimation jig is still under construction at a firm in the US and I expect to continue the R&D in February when hopefully everything will be ready.
  • Also this week I’ll be receiving some stock of blank (unprinted) key sets and other parts this week so please let me know if you’d like to order key sets to be delivered early in February (no keyboards are being delivered early though!). I also have limited stock of assembled flippers/springs, barrels, and F122 / F107 inner foam that can ship within a few days of an order.

 

As part of my forthcoming book on the Model F project and manufacturing adventures abroad (after all keyboards have shipped), here are some notes on a proposed chapter that will offer some behind the scenes insights on bringing something magnificent back to life and the scary world of high-end hardware manufacturing overseas.

Time requirements:
The time requirements are much higher than expected because so much goes wrong and this kind of project requires such high quality standards to get it right. Constant back and forth for very particular quality goods to my standards for this project added many months to the timeline (example – after months of the factory producing and mailing case color samples based on existing Pantone/RAL colors to no avail, the right texture and color was achieved by shipping an original F107 case and Industrial SSK case bottom to one of the factories). Parts requiring a consistent radius (the curved inner assembly plates) required getting custom stamping tools built because existing tools were not accurate enough for the precise radius IBM used.  Getting the old large pitch ribbon cables like those of an IDE hard drive or floppy drive required talking with many potential suppliers.
Keeping long hours: 12 hour time difference on the US East Coast. Talk at night and in early morning. They are often responsive even at late/early hours.

Adventures with suppliers:
Getting funds back from underperforming suppliers has proven nearly impossible. Failure of the key molds in 2017 – funds were gone for good and had to start over with another factory that did a perfect job but was 6 months later than expected.
Importance of getting a good supplier, vetting the supplier through Alibaba (ideally visiting the supplier’s facilities – many great articles on vetting suppliers and overseas manufacturing), and ordering a sample first if possible to gauge the supplier.
Even getting back less than $300 from a minor supplier who sent parts completely different from those I ordered took months and the involvement of one of my managing suppliers and Alibaba who ended up telling the bad supplier their status on AliBaba was jeopardized (that was one of the only things the supplier paid attention to).  Paid by PayPal which offers no buyer protection for custom made goods.  Early on, the bad supplier even refused delivery on the returned parts after agreeing to accept the return.  Probably the only reason I won was because I kept communications on AliBaba and the factory likely relied on the site for significant new business generation – suppliers do not want to be suspended from there or they could lose significant business.  Insist on talking through AliBaba messaging for most of your suppliers of more straightforward parts.

Adventures with hackers:

Summary-suppliers were hacked and lost some money.  I was also scammed but fortunately for me 100% of the funds I sent to the fraudsters were recovered a couple weeks after reporting it.
Lack of security practices especially with phishing scams and wire fraud. Important to use secure passwords and change them often – not always done by all companies. It’s good to call your suppliers or talk through a non-email platform (e.g. Skype/whatsapp chat) every so often, and if wire information changes you should call before transferring any funds. Do not transfer funds to a “subsidiary” or a company whose bank account name on the wire transfer form does not match the name of the company on AliBaba. Nearly no major supplier accepts credit cards or PayPal for large purchases – it’s payment by wire transfer which almost never can be reversed.
Both the supplier and I learned this the hard way. One supplier for this project did not change their email password and it was being accessed by the hackers for more than one year from what we could piece together. What they do was hack a factory’s email address, monitor their email communications for more than one year and when a customer is ready to pay, they altered the official wire form’s account number. After reporting this to the FBI and Hong Kong police as well as issuing a wire recall, the funds were surprisingly returned successfully – every single cent! The supplier was not so lucky and lost some money from scammers pretending to be me and asking for a refund due to a [non-existent] emergency. They registered a similar email address to the one I used and spoke with the supplier from that email – I was never hacked in any way.  Usually the funds are transferred out of Hong Kong within days of receipt so this was a nearly unbelievably good turn of events for me, and not so much for the smaller amount lost by one of my suppliers. Business insurance not common in China/Hong Kong, and often doesn’t cover phishing/wire fraud (good for you to have it though!).

Lessons learned with wire fraud case:
Don’t wire funds to other accounts not matching the business name of your account, no matter the reason given, unless you call the contact person first at the publicly listed number you have called before – email can be hacked. Get to know the voice of the contact person at the factory. Make sure your suppliers use two factor authentication for their emails and have strong passwords, and tell them to change their passwords! Should educate the suppliers – I do not have alternative email addresses – be careful for an altered email address – it is not from me. Use a non-free email address, preferably of your own domain.

Summary:
Despite all the past troubles, all issues have been resolved and we are on pace for these Brand New Model F Keyboards to start shipping out around mid-year. Assembly and dye sublimation are the last two major steps. Please do see my other monthly updates to learn more about the process and feel free to message me with any questions on ordering and customizing your Brand New Model F.

 

P.S. Even companies like Apple have had trouble with manufacturing due to supplier issues – an interesting article discusses the Mac Pro’s delays due to a single custom screw.

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