Hardware isn’t easy — especially if you decline to take advantage of the global manufacturing infrastructure, build everything in a flat in London, and use only local labor and materials. But that’s what the creators of successful Kickstarter project Moon did, and they have no regrets.
Back in 2016, I got a pitch for the Moon, an accurate replica of our satellite around which a set of LEDs rotated, illuminating the face in perfect time with the actual phase. A cool idea, though for some reason or another I didn’t cover it, instead asking Alex du Prees, one of the creators, to hit me back later to talk about the challenges of crowdfunded, home-brewed hardware.
The project was a success, raising £145,393 — well over the £25,000 goal — and Alex and I chatted late last year while the team was wrapping up production and starting on a second run, which in fact they just recently wrapped up as well.
It’s an interesting case study of a crowdfunded hardware project, not least because the Moon team made the unusual choice to keep everything local: from the resin casting of the moon itself to the chassis and electronics.
“At the time we wanted to make sure that we made them correctly, and that we didn’t spend a lot of our energy and money prototyping with a factory,” du Preez said. “We’ve seen a lot of Kickstarter campaigns go straight to China, to some manufacturing facility, and we were afraid we’d lose a lot of the quality of the product if we did that.”
The chief benefit, in addition to the good feeling they got by sourcing everything from no further than the next town over, was the ability to talk directly to these people and explain or work through problems in person.
“We can just get on a train and go visit them,” du Preez said. “For instance, there’s a bent pipe which is the arm of the device — even that part alone, we worked with a pipe-bending company and went out there like three times to have conversations with the guy.”
Of course, they weren’t helpless themselves; the three people behind the project are designers and engineers that have helped launch crowdfunding campaigns before, though this one was the first they had done on their own.
“I think Oscar [Lhermitte, who led the project] probably worked two and a half or three years on this, from ideation all the way to manufacturing,” said du Preez. “He had this idea and he contacted NASA and asked for this topographical data to make the map. He came to us because he wanted some technical and engineering input.”
The decision to do it all in the UK wasn’t made any easier by the fact that it was a demanding piece of hardware, the team’s standards were high, and despite being a great success, $200,000 or so still isn’t a lot with which to build a unique, high-precision electronic device from scratch.
The whole operation was run out of a small apartment in London, and the team had to improvise quite a bit.
“We had this tiny little room the size of a kitchen we were producing these things out of,” du Preez recalled. “It wasn’t like a warehouse. And we were on the second floor — we’d get a delivery of like, a ton of metal, and we’d have to spend half a day hauling it up, then boxes would arrive and it would fill up the whole studio.”
They resisted the urge to get something off the shelf or ready-made from Shenzhen, choosing instead to rely on their own ingenuity (and that of nearby, puzzlingly specific artisans) to solve problems.
“One of the trickiest parts was that every single part is made with a different process,” he said. “If you want to make a piece of electronics in a plastic case,” for example a security camera or cheap Android phone, “it’s a lot quicker to develop and execute.”
Obviously the most important part to get right is the globe of the moon itself — and no one had ever made something quite like this before, so they had to figure out how to do it themselves.
“It’s quite large, so we can’t cast it in one solid piece,” du Preez explained. “It would be too heavy to ship. And it sinks — the material moves too much. So what you do is you make a mold, like a negative of the moon, and you pour the liquid inside it. And while the liquid is setting, you rotate it around, to make sure the inner surface is being coated by resin while it’s drying.”
In order to do this for their prototyping stage, they jury-rigged a solution from “wood, bicycle parts, and I think a sewing machine engine,” he said. “We had to put that together on the spot to keep costs down. We kind of replicated what we knew was already out there to test our materials and concepts. We knew if we could make this work, we just had to build or find a better one.”
As luck would have it, they did find someone — right up the tracks.
“We found this guy in Birmingham who basically has an industrial version of this, he makes molds and he has this big metal cage rotating around all day,” du Preez said. “The quality of his work is amazing.” And, of course, it’s just a short train trip away — relative to a trip to Guangzhuo, anyway.
Attention to detail, especially regarding the globe, led to delays in shipping the Moon; they ended up about four months late.
Late arrivals are of course to be expected when it comes to Kickstarter projects, but du Preez said that the response of backers, both friendly and unfriendly, surprised him.
“It seemed quite binary. We had 541 backers, and I’d say only two were really pissed off about not having their moon, and they were irate. I mean they were fuming,” he said.
“But no one really got publicly angry with us. They’d just check in. Once they email you and you give them a response, they seem to be very understanding. As long as we kept the momentum going, people were okay with it.”
That said, four months late isn’t really that late. There are projects that have raised far more than Moon and were years late or never even shipped (full disclosure, I’ve backed a couple!). Du Preez offered some advice to would-be crowdfunders who want to keep the good will of their backers.
“It’s really important to understand your pricing, who’s going to manufacture it, all the way down to shipping. If you have no game plan for after Kickstarter you’re going to be in a tricky situation,” he said. “We had a bill of materials and priced everything out before we went to Kickstarter. And you need some kind of proof of concept to show that the product works. There are so many great hardware development platforms out there that I think that’s quite easy to do now.”
Their attention to detail and obvious pride in their work has resulted in a lasting business, du Preez told me; the company has attracted attention from Adam Savage, Mark Hamill, and MOMA, while a second run of 250 has just completed and the team is looking into other projects along these lines.
You can track the team’s projects or order your own unit (though you may wish you’d gotten the early bird discount) over at the dedicated Moon website.