“Choose the sword, and you will join me
Choose the ball, and you join your mother… in death
You don’t understand my words, but you must choose
So… come boy, choose life or death”
– 4th Chamber, GZA
Things have been getting increasingly real around here. I haven’t really had to spend any of my own money yet, but the time is rapidly approaching where I will have to. And that’s good. But also kind of scary, because things get very expensive, very quickly.
The most expensive thing for any early start up, the thing you have to put money that you really can’t avoid, is the prototype. Whether it’s man-hours (say, paying programmers to build your app) or, in my case, tooling and materials, you’re going to have to pony up and sink some of your own money into it.
One of the things that makes this process especially unpleasant for the bootstrapping hustler is that you have to prototype before you can raise money. From investors, from the crowd. Unless you’re really good with slight of hand, you need some kind of physical product that approximates the look, feel and function of the manufactured model. So you’re going to have to pay with blood money, which is to say, personal savings, credit card debt, loans from friends and family.
The Lean Startup talks a lot about a Minimum Viable Product, the least amount of prototype that functions the way your product will, that you can put in front of users and get feedback on. The prototype has to be catered to the kind of information you need and go no further. For instance, if you need to know how something feels in a persons hand, you don’t paint it blue. For one thing, color will skew the users perception and change the conversation, but it also wastes time and money.
I basically started this project with a budget of $300 (my winnings from the IHA show), so I’m trying to do this as cheaply as possible
So what does my MVP look like and how am I going to get it made? Well, it has to function the way my product is supposed to function, given the current work flow, and it would be really good if it also looked about the way the final manufactured version does, but this is less important. At some point I will want something that both looks and functions like the real deal for purposes of making a Kickstarter or promotional video, doing demos and even showing to potential users for feedback.
At minimum, this is going to involve injection molding a food-grade silicone part, and either 3D printing, milling or injection molding several rigid plastic parts.
The rigid plastic parts are fairly easy: I can get those 3D printed or milled out of PP or ABS, because those materials are close enough to what the final product will have to be like. Ideally I’ll get them done on the cheap at school. If I have to go through 3D Hubs or Shapeways, probably looking at $200-300. If I wanted to make more of them, I could use the parts as positives and make flexible mold that I could use a pneumatic injector with, like this. (more on that in a minute).
The silicone part is a lot more difficult. 3D printing is out (flexible filament exists, but it’s nowhere near the durometer or resolution that I’d need), and in order to really test how well it works for the intended work-flow, it has to be as close to the manufactured spec as possible.
So the only option is to mold it and cast it in food-grade silicone. Here’s where it starts getting complex:
Pay someone to do it for me: Protolabs, Solidconcepts, Stratysis and other prototyping houses can make a mold, either machined or cast from a 3D Printed positive and then injection mold the parts for me.
- Least hands-on
- Quick turn-around
- Potentially most professional results
- Could even be used for limited-run production.
- Expensiiiiiiiiive. I’m still waiting on quotes, but this is almost certainly out of my budget. Still, we’ll see what comes up.
- I only really get one shot at this, partly because of cost, so if I go this route I have to be as prescient as possible and just about ready for production.
Do It Myself Using the School’s Facilities: Mass Art has 3D printers, a CNC mill, a full mold-making set-up with gram scale, vacuum chamber and pressure pot, and, the crown jewel, a pneumatic injection molding machine. I would have to provide my own materials, which would probably be about $100 for the molds and maybe $50 for materials per prototype (incidentally, I’d probably be using Smooth-On brand urethane, silicone and castable plastics, available from Reynolds Advanced Materials). So this would be the cheapest option with the best results:
BUT WAIT I went and talked to the professor who has access to the mold-making set-up (he helped me last semester to make a silicone mold for a much earlier prototype of the Coconest, as well as a master for the Kettlebrew, which I cast in bronze). He informed me that if I wanted to go this route and use the school’s tools, I would have to get it approved as an independent study, register for it and pay out of pocket. I’d also have to go through 6 meetings with him and get a grade. So it would be kind of like taking another class… just so I could use tools I already know how to use. I totally understand that it’s part of the school’s policy; if they don’t approve this kind of thing, professors could sign themselves up for all kinds of work outside of the classroom with students and it would become a huge mess. But this is a serious bummer. It just kind of sucks that the different departments at Mass Art don’t really share resources.
So with materials, plus $1,200 for a 3 credit Independent Study equals…
- Very hands on, I could change the molds, make multiples, cast in different materials.
- If I end up having to change things substantially, the cost per mold will be cheaper than if I was going through a prototyping house (say it’s $1,200 for the credits but for that one-time cost I get to make unlimited molds, assuming I can afford the materials out of pocket).
- WAY out of my budget. Especially because the 1,200 is just sunk into administrative cots and doesn’t actually get me anywhere. At least if I pay a prototyper to do it for me, I’m getting $1,200 worth of work.
- Time consuming. I’d have to devote a ton of hours to this as well as work on somebody else’s schedule on top of my already busy situation
Do it Myself on my own: This is, well, kind of bananas. But using a combination of Mass Art tools like the 3D printer and cobbling together things on my own, I might be able to make it work. I would need to get a pressure chamber, vacuum pump, air compressor, gram scale and figure out some way around pneumatic injection molding, but if the cheapest alternative involves sinking $300+ for no gain, maybe it’s worth it to put that money towards getting the tools myself
Cost: ~$520 (Hard to estimate. Still ~$200 for materials, then maybe $100 for a pressure chamber, $100 for a cheap vacuum pump, $20 for a gram scale, and the hand-held pneumatic resin dispenser, $100)
- Totally on my own terms. I can do basically whatever I want on my own schedule.
- Maybe the cheapest option (assuming I can figure out the injector) and I’d get to keep the tools. Win-Win
- High failure factor. I could end up putting a bunch of money into this and it may end up not working at all.
- Big time sink. Maybe only a little bit more than going through Mass Art’s facilities, but it all adds up. How much time and money can I sink into this before it starts to distract from my goals?
- The pneumatic injector is going to be hard to get around. After talking with a rep from Reynolds Advanced Materials, I do have some options that might not be as expensive, such as “squish” mold — a 2-part mold that you fill with resin, then squish the top onto so that it fills all of the cavities. Combine that with a pressure chamber and you’re in business.
Right now, I’m really not sure what to do. There are still too many variables and maybe I’ll know more when I talk to some people about quotes and how much it would actually cost to do the independent study. I can say this is probably going to tap me out budget wise, but there are still a few tricks I can use to shave things down:
- Cut it in half: I don’t need a full product to test functionality necessarily, so why not just make the part that I need? Hell I could cut it into 1/4 and save a bunch on materials. However, this would be somewhat limiting. I’m still going to need at least a looks-like model for the Kickstarter.
- Sacrifice on materials: I may be able to get away with using a one-part mold and a paint-on silicone rubber to make the mold. Basically, 3D print a positive and then brush on silicone rubber in layers until I have the desired wall thickness. The downside is that it probably won’t be food-grade and one of the surfaces won’t look very pretty. But it could work the way that I need it to, and it would cut out the need for a 2-part mold and a eliminate the need for the pneumatic injection molding machine, at least for the first couple of iterations. Then I could 3D print the looks-like model for promos and whatnot.
I’m pretty much pulling out everything in my bag of tricks to figure this out, and still banging my head against the wall to cram it into my budget. My only hope is that once I start filling in these variables, I’ll be able to make a much more informed decision, and in the meantime, I’m just going to keep pressing forward on getting the design ready for manufacture.
Until next time, hustle hard