It was a dark and bitterly cold February evening in Wellington Mill, home of Hackspace Manchester, and the rain was battering against the windows, an icy breeze seeping in. Inside, under halogen heaters, a few of us sat. We had events upcoming – Maker Faire in Newcastle, MakeFest Manchester and MakeFest Liverpool and we wanted to attend with an activity for people to do.

Our idea: something which could teach people to solder, they could wear on the day and featured the Manchester Bee.

This is the story of how we went from nothing, to the humble PCBee which all but literally flew off the shelves.


 

The Manchester Bee

The Manchester Bee is the official symbol of the City of Manchester, and has been since the industrial revolution. It’s an icon for the city, where worker bees, (read: workers in mills), made mass produced goods on an industrial scale for the first time ever, which would be sold across the world. Manchester was truly leading the world, with Queen Bee, Queen Victoria, at the throne. This is of course romanticised, but the Bee represents the spirit of unity in Manchester. Our hackerspace is based in one of the mills where this history was made, so it seemed apt for us to feature the bee on our activity.

 

Designing the board

We realised we needed to design and make a PCB, as nothing similar to what we wanted existed. I’d never done this, and couldn’t do it just by myself. 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 exactly 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 but was much easier than I thought.

We chose to have the bee produced in beautiful ENIG gold flash and the PCB itself to be black providing maximum effect of gold on black, with two dots of colour.

After a final review we had a good design for Version 1.

 

Hello, China.

And so we needed to get components ordered, and our boards made. Another amazingly helpful member of our unofficial 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, but you’d probably want to throw in a charger.

For board manufacture, we used Elecrow, and I recommend them so much. They produced excellent, high quality boards, exactly to specification, quickly and with excellent customer service. Here’s a photo of the stunning prototypes:

 

Testing them out

Of course, we had to pose in front of the hackerspace, wearing our badges.

With our amazing bee boards produced, next time I was at the space we excitedly dived in and we all soldered a PCBee each, and verified that they worked, looked beautiful and were easy to make.

Doing prototypes was invaluable, 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 as a badge. So as part of designing for production, we moved the through-hole higher up and removed the copper making it very discreet.

The scariest point in this project was ordering the production run of 300 boards. While we had made changes, we didn’t have time to do another run of prototypes, so with blind faith we ordered, and waited for a week and a half. Two people in our team put money towards the production run, which helped make this possible. Hackspace Manchester receives no funding; this was all member-led and funded. Our total spend, for prototypes, components and production run, as well as import fees, was just over £330.

Getting event-ready.

Preparing for Maker Faire, our first event, was exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure. I had shown my friends and colleagues badges, and the reception was passionate, but we had no idea if the kits would actually sell.

To get people looking at our stand, and to represent the community we all care about, we made and brought along eye catching things to show. To display our boards, I laser cut a display out of transparent acrylic, side lit with RGB LEDs – It looked stunning:

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 and leaflets printed 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, an illuminated donation rocket, and a really big banner. We were ready to go.

Our event!

Over two days, we had constant interest. Even though our location at Maker Faire was a bit 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.

One month later…

MakeFest at the Museum of Science and Industry, was awesome too. We had an extra two tables, with four soldering stations, a table of projects and PCBee displays, and it looked even better! They also provided amazing lunches for all of us. In the month between events, another member of our team had the idea to sell the boards as keyrings, and necklaces, and they were a smash hit – people loved them!

We were in one of the main rooms, and people loved our activity. It was so exciting to be doing what we were passionate about, sharing our love for making with others. Our passion was returned, and we were very popular.

Sharing the passion

I was lucky at Make Fest to be able to give a talk about our community, our project, what we’ve done and what we’ve learned. After a delicious pizza and beer dinner with other makers, we were a part of a series of short talks, where we got to hear about many interesting topics from hackable clothes to the Ordsall Chord.

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. Everyone made it possible, and it’s the gold standard of what community should be. It was great fun, and we’ve made our hackerspace money which will be re-invested back into the community, to make it even better than it already is.

It’s been an absolute pleasure.

 

Categories: Hackerspace