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Factory Friday: Takeaways from Facility Tours

Hardware isn't just about prototyping and user-centered design: at some point, you're going to have to get it manufactured, which means talking to a factory.

We think it’s a good idea to get our startups as familiar as possible with every aspect of the process, so we took the Fall 2016 cohort on a tour of some manufacturing facilities right here in the Bay Area. The day began with electronics makers Rocket EMS before moving on to precision metalworkers Vander-Bend, wrapping up in Oakland at FATHOM.

“This was my first time at a PCB factory,” Cue‘s Grace Huang notes. “Before this, I didn’t really know how any of the machines worked, but having seen them in operation, I’ll be able to provide BOMs and components to a factory in the way they need.”

“[Rocket EMS CEO Craig Arcuri] went over ten big dos and don’ts of PCB manufacturing, which taught me a lot,” says RecoverX’s Alex Aguiar, “and being able to see the whole process on a large scale was really interesting. It impressed upon me the notion that you really want to do your layout right the first time, so you don’t send a factory one they make a thousand times incorrectly. You don’t want to waste all that time and money.”

West Askew of Flo Labs found Vander-Bend’s San Jose factory to be the most surprising and impressive. “The scale of the facility was insane. They have the biggest CNC I’ve ever seen — they called it ‘the condo’ — with a 5′ x 5′ x 5′ build area. I found it interesting that they’re a multimillion-dollar-a-year revenue company, but they’re also family-owned and -started and bootstrapped.”

Oakland’s FATHOM was the last stop on tour day. “Seeing all the different capabilities they have and knowing they’re super close by was very valuable,” West notes. Aguiar agrees: “I didn’t know it was possible to 3D print in so many different materials — not just a hard plastic, but moldable ones as well.”

The startups all agreed that it was a day well spent. “The most important thing for us going forward is to pick the right factory partner, and to do that, we need to know a lot of details,” says Huang. “If we were going by ourselves to a factory, they probably wouldn’t give us the same level of information about how things work. It’s set a standard for what I’m looking for out of the factories in China.”

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