Well, I finally ran out of excuses to delay opening the store. There’s still a million things that I can do to tweak the store, boards, inventory or whatever but I’m sticking to my guns and enforcing my cutoff point. At least it will stop my wife from nagging me on when the shop will open. She's my toughest critic.
It’s been quite the journey just to reach this point and I’m definitely a better, or at least more knowledgeable, person for it. What started out as a “quick three month project” turned into a nine month odyssey where I learned that having good design skills is only a minor part of putting together a complete micro-manufacturing operation.
But First, Happy Birthday
A lot of things happened on the way as well. FreakLabs had its third birthday at the start of March. I was so busy taking care of tax issues at the time that I didn’t put up a post about it. I just wanted to say that I’m very happy with the site and how its evolving. Its taken on a life of its own and has become a valuable learning resource for me. This is mainly due to the people that frequent it and are kind enough to leave insightful comments and forum posts. The news feed also forces me to stay on top of things and helps me see how the WSN world is evolving.
I’ve also allowed my Zigbee Alliance membership to expire and will not be renewing it. This is due to the membership fees, but also the fact that I’d like to continue my work outside of the alliance. I’ve had a lot of time to think about my work on the FreakZ stack and decided that I want to work on it as a person with no affiliation to the alliance. I think it’s important that an open source stack exists due to Zigbee's market share. However I don’t think that an open source project fits inside the suit-and-tie world of the Zigbee Alliance with all its business interests and politicking. I definitely don’t fit in with that crowd and think that all the cool people are on the IETF side of the fence.
Things have also changed a lot since I started FreakLabs. Wireless sensor networking went from a glimmer in the eye of geeks and academics to “the internet of things” that everyone seems to be talking about. Last year, was a huge change for me as well. I got involved in the open hardware community and helped start Tokyo Hackerspace. That really helped me find a community and place that I could really fit in. And of course, I decided to start a webshop which kicked off a very long trek that took me into the depths of manufacturing, IT, open hardware, and my psyche. If I had known what I’d be getting into when I started the site, I probably would have been too terrified to do it.
Grand Opening (Yay!)
Today, I also wanted to announce the grand opening of the FreakLabs Store where I’m hoping to eke out a living to support my open source work, family, and my growing appetite for wireless hardware and antennas. There are some things I'd like to say about the store.
The main theme of the FreakLabs store is "rapid prototyping for wireless sensor networks". This also implies that its geared towards wireless sensor network developers. It’s a pretty targeted niche and since it’s actually not very big, it’s under-represented in the overall business of WSN. The idea came about when I was developing my FreakZ stack and saw that the availability of low-cost and extensible WSN development kits was seriously lacking. Most of the kits were made by semiconductor manufacturers and they often tried to lock in the software, MCU, and radios into one package.
From a developer point of view, this isn’t good because the application domain of wireless sensor networks is quite large and there really is no one-size-fits-all approach. Hence, I decided to put together a modular platform with interchangeable radios, MCUs, sensors, and antennas. The initial selection mostly consists of Atmel parts because my software was already written for the Atmel Raven boards. However I’ll be introducing other MCU boards and radios very soon. It might be hard to see the benefits of this approach initially, but as the selection of MCUs, radios, sensors, and antennas grows, I think it will become a very good development platform.
The shop will be stocked with the boards I make as well as other components such as sensors, discretes, and accessories. On the wireless boards, there will be different antenna options available and you’ll also have to select which antenna you’ll want to be the default. This just lets me know where to mount the option capacitor/resistor to choose the RF path. You’ll also see a lot of through hole components in the store and the reason is that they’re excellent for quick prototyping on breadboards, at least for functional verification. A lot of the components are found locally in Akihabara and I’ll be trying to introduce other interesting items that I run across over there. Once I’m able to afford it, I’ll also be trying to stock more specialized items for WSN like high gain directional antennas, exotic sensors, energy harvesters, and ruggedized enclosures.
The initial quantities of boards will be a little low. Once I get a sense of how the boards sell, I’ll be able to focus my time, purchasing, and production more efficiently. This initial period is actually to get a feel for the overall turnover.
There might be sellouts from time to time depending on how well things go. Even though I have a pick and place, I don’t have a fully automated one that can handle fine-pitch ICs. This means I can get about 30-50% of my boards automatically placed but need to manually place the rest. Also, mounting and soldering through hole components/connectors, board inspection, touch-up, and testing take a large amount of the overall assembly time. Hopefully I’ll be able to improve on the efficiency in the future and either bring down my total assembly times or farm out more popular designs to cope with manufacturing load.
I spent a lot of time researching shipping options and decided on two shipping options for international delivery and one option for domestic. For international, I’ll be using Japan’s EMS (Express Mail Service) which is the equivalent of FedEx. This option is the fastest for delivery and provides tracking numbers, but is also more expensive.
For people that don’t need speedy delivery, I’ll also be offering Japan Post’s small package airmail service. This is good for packages up to 1 kg and is surprisingly cheap. Unfortunately, no tracking number is provided and it takes roughly twice as long as EMS for a package to arrive at its destination. As an example of how cheap it is, sending two RF boards including antennas to France using this service came out to about $3 which is actually cheaper than sending them somewhere in Tokyo.
For domestic shipping, I’ll be offering Yuu-Pack which is standard for delivering parcels within Japan. Delivery is quite fast and usually happens within 1-2 days.
I’m also going to be experimenting with offering free shipping for orders over $100. It looks like I can make it work without the shipping eating too much into the margins. The free shipping option will be using small package airmail for international orders or Yuu-pack for domestic orders. It should show up on any order greater than $100.
One other thing is that the Icelandic volcano eruption has created shipping delays and a one week backlog in shipments to Europe, Africa, and parts of the Middle East. As of today, Japan Post’s delivery planes are operational again, but there will still be delays as they work through the backlog. I never thought I’d be contending with a volcanic eruption for my shop opening…
The site will probably be slow initially depending on the server load. As I mentioned previously, I’m looking into migrating it to a more scalable host but I’ll be going with what I have for now. The domain for the store is different than the domain for the website because there were some limitations on how Bluehost handles SSL. To support secure transactions, I had to structure it this way. Also, registrations are required for Zencart users to make purchases. I’ve researched removing this, but it’s a limitation with the shopping cart. No credit card numbers will ever be stored however.
I guess that’s about it for now. It’s a bit nerve racking flipping the switch that turns on the webshop, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Hope you like it :)
FreakLabs Store Link