When Charlie Emery set out to build Spooky Pinball, his Benton, Wis.-based company, he ran into a snag: finding a resource to manufacture the circuit boards that power each of his custom-made, $5,995 pinball machines. His only options were to line up prohibitively expensive one-off production in the U.S. or deal with high minimum orders and suspicious quality from manufacturers overseas.
“I was doing everything out of my own pocket,” Emery says, “and I only needed 10 circuit boards at first.”
Enter MacroFab, the Houston-based manufacturer started by tech industry veteran Chris Church and electrical engineer Parker Dillmann. Church launched MacroFab after enduring similar pain manufacturing a time-lapse security camera as head of another company he founded, Dynamic Perception.
“Being from software, I wanted to make manufacturing hardware more like creating software,” Church says. “In software, when I needed a piece of code to do a certain task, I could go out and find it and plug it in. I thought hardware could work the same way.”
In traditional hardware manufacturing, an inventor sends designs to a manufacturer and waits—often for weeks—for a quote based on a sizable, and costly, first run of product. But with Kickstarter and the maker movement spawning thousands of electronic hardware inventions, Church knew there was an opportunity to help entrepreneurs build prototypes and manufacture their first few thousand orders, whether they were building a new cellphone or a purpose-built laptop for a limited market.
To reach his goal, Church started with the front end, building a web-accessed program that takes a customer’s design and automatically finds and prices the raw materials and parts to build it. The program also determines the cost to manufacture the design in MacroFab’s factory, which Church set up with refurbished equipment cast off from the likes of Foxconn and Flextronics.
“All the customer has to do is upload their design and specs and then press ‘Order,’” Church says.
Nashville, Tenn.-based MetaMorph uses MacroFab to produce the open-source hardware it is building for Google’s Project Ara, a development effort for an affordable smartphone that lets users buy and plug in the modules they want, such as a camera, sensors or extra-large battery. As MetaMorph develops its ideas, it can get prototypes made on-demand at MacroFab. “Having a manufacturer that can build whatever we want, whenever we need it, has made us a lot more legit,” says MetaMorph CEO Justin Knight. “They’re getting us to a more reliable state, and right now that’s more important than speed or cost.”
Church concedes that MacroFab charges more per unit than overseas manufacturers, but his model allows for production runs of as few as one unit. He says it’s more critical that a client get a quality product to market for testing than obsessing too soon over costs and margins. Plus, he points out that the more products that are run through the system, the smarter it becomes at reducing costs by spreading parts orders among multiple products and streamlining production.
“We want to be thought of more like a cloud factory—the Amazon Web Services of manufacturing,” Church says. “Ultimately, we want to be able to take your design and deliver a finished product straight to your customers.”