It was a dark, and bitterly cold February night at Wellington Mill, home of Hackspace Manchester. The rain was battering against the full height windows and inside, under halogen heat lamps, a few of us sat, brainstorming what we would do for Maker Faire. Maker Faire UK is an annual event where people from across the country come together to share, talk, make and teach.
Our idea: a badge that people who never soldered before could make and wear on the day, featuring the Manchester Bee, that lights up.
This is the story of how we went from nothing, to the humble PCBee, which flew off the shelves.
Background of the Bee
The Bee is the official symbol of the City of Manchester, and comes from the industrial revolution. It’s an icon for the city, where hives of bees, or rather workers in mills, would make mass produced goods on an industrial scale to be sold across the world. Manchester was truly leading the world. This is of course romanticised, but the Bee represents the spirit of unity in Manchester. Our hackerspace is based in one of these mills, where people would have worked long hours. Little could they imagine it would now be a community workshop, where people would go, for fun.
Version 0 was when I laser cut a bee out of yellow acrylic, attached lights and a battery and stood back and looked at it. It looked good, but it wasn’t perfect.
So began the journey of us deciding to make a PCB. I would designing the first PCB I’d ever designed. With help from three others in the hackerspace, we formed a team (or “Committee” as we put on the boards themselves) and got going making some amazing little boards…
Designing the board
With a heaped tablespoon of help from another member on our team, I designed the board, hexagonal in shape, with the bee on the front, LEDs on the wings, and the battery on the back. Following some rather important tweaks (initially the LEDs would have shorted out – whoops!) we generated the Gerber files. These files tell the PCB manufacturers exactly what each of their machines should do to make the boards as we designed them.
The process of learning to design and produce the boards deserves its own blog post – it was an invaluable learning experience, and was much easier than I thought.
We chose to have the bee on the front of the badge in beautiful gold flash, and the PCB itself to be black for maximum effect.
After a final review we had a good design for Version 1.
While the designs were being finished off, another person in our team ordered the components:
- LEDs, 5mm of mixed colours, about 1500 of them
- Battery holders for CR2032 batteries,
- and of course the batteries themselves.
All components came from AliExpress, direct from China. We bought single use batteries to keep costs low, but if you wanted to be more environmentally friendly you could instead use rechargeable batteries. Not many people have chargers for coin cell batteries, so you’d probably want to throw one in and sell the badge as part of a package to prevent people binning the rechargeable cell. All this would increase cost, and our project was meant to be sold at pocket-money prices.
For board manufacture, we used Elecrow, and I recommend them so much. They do excellent, high quality production, quickly and with excellent customer service, any questions they had they got back to us and produced stunning prototypes:
Our Manchester Bee "PCBees" badges arrived from @Elecrow1! Thank you for your help @gregmorris64 and @dsilverstone. Can't wait to get the components on them (the wings light up powered by the battery on the back). "Designed by Committee" at @hacmanchester pic.twitter.com/caIUToSxOx
— Conor (@suchconor) April 3, 2018
Testing them out
With our amazing bee boards produced, I excitedly ripped them open, and the next day we all soldered a PCBee each, and verified that they worked and looked beautiful, which they did.
I’m glad we did prototypes, as we noticed the through-hole for the pin to wear the board as a badge was too close to the battery holder and made it hard to wear. So we edited the designs moving the through hole higher up, removing the copper to make it look close to invisible.
Of course, we had to pose in front of the hackerspace, wearing our badges.
The scariest point in this project was ordering the production run, 300 of the boards. We had made changes to the prototypes, and hadn’t got time for more prototypes. So with blind faith, we ordered. Two people in our team put money towards the production run. Our total spend, for prototypes, components and production run, as well as import fees, was just over £330.
Preparing for Maker Faire was exciting.
It was nerve-wracking too – while I had spoken to my friends showing them a badge, and the reception was passionate, we had no idea if the kits would actually sell.
To get people looking at our stand, we made eye catching things to show. Using the laser cutter at the hackerspace, I made a little display board out of transparent 5mm acrylic, that would show off the boards. After adding side lit LEDs, it looked stunning (I am aware of the video quality, I made a GIF for WhatsApp and only uploaded that):
— Conor (@suchconor) April 26, 2018
We had another side lit sign with the Hackspace logo and contact details which looked awesome, and we brought things to show, including excellent 3D-printed items (pugs, a boat that floats, movable iris shutter, a secret box, massive lego blocks and awesome spaceships), laser cut tessellating Escher birds, a speaker box that plays water droplets of different tones as you wave your hand over it, a shiny LED sign, a light that changes colour when you send it a message and some beautiful jewellery featuring computer keys.
We got stickers printed (I’d recommend never using Discount Sticker Printing, they failed in almost every aspect of their job), and some leaflets made by Marqetspace who did a beautiful job.
One of our team was very much a professional at events, and brought boxes of useful things, and really got us through the event. We had a paypal machine, cash box, a float for change, a donation rocket that lights up and a big banner. With that, we were ready to go!
It looked awesome:
Over two days, we had constant interest. Even though our location at Maker Faire was in a back room, tucked away, we had pretty much a constant stream of people coming in.
We had two soldering stations set up, where people could choose their colours and solder a badge.
When one person finished soldering, another sat down excited to get going. We had people of all ages keen to make one.
Here’s a photo of a quieter time!
It was brilliant, and we made the hackerspace a good amount of money, which was reinvested in the next batch.
Time to breathe
Maker Faire was awesome, and exhausting. It was so popular, and we had so many people to talk to, engage with and help solder these badges. As a largely introverted person, I found this taxing, though actually highly enjoyable. It took a few days of time to myself to recharge.
I’m so proud of the whole project. We, as a group of friends, with no boss, management, or targets, made this out of nothing and did a bloody amazing job. It was great fun, and now we’ve made our money back, we can further enjoy future events. It’s been a pleasure, hard work at the event and lots of people. All profits go to the space, and as it’s an awesome community that I care about, I don’t mind (in fact, I enjoy) putting the work in.
Get your hands on one, and say hello
The next event we will be at is MakeFest in Manchester. It’s on the last bank holiday weekend of May; the 26th 27th May 2018 at the Museum of Science and Industry. You can make badges, take a kit home to solder when you want, or get a pre-made one to wear away.
It’ll be a blast.