The Road to Electronics Manufacturing
C. J. Abate: You have a background in business. When did you get involved with electronics manufacturing, hardware, and the maker community?
Felix Plitzko: My dad is an electrical engineer and at an early age taught me how to program. However, at some point in time, I realized that I could never be better than other folks in programming. That’s why I focused on what software could do, rather than building it myself, and went to get a background in Business Process Engineering (a bachelor’s program that teaches how business processes can be designed around software systems).
Really getting into electronics hardware only started when I first met my co-founder Patrick Franken in 2014. The electronics industry was — and most likely still is — extremely complicated to deal with as a customer. As a business process guy, this was extremely intriguing because software could help solve lots of these problems. So, if there was someone to blame for me to deep dive into the electronics hardware and the maker community, all the credit goes to Patrick.
C. J.: Share AISLER’s story.
Felix: AISLER was originally not founded to manufacture electronics. Patrick and I met 2014 at BBQ where he approached me with the idea of bringing the concept of software-based version control to electronics design companies. Lots of potential, millions of euros. That was our idea of a company, so we got started. One and a half years later, and after some more reality checks, we realized that it was a tougher sell than we thought. (If you want to see what we had in mind, have a look at the amazing software from cadlab.io. It’s a lot better than what we could have ever built.) We decided to switch gears, searched for electronics manufacturing partners, and instead of selling our software, use it for ourselves to bring professional electronics manufacturing to the masses at affordable cost (Figure 1).
Electronics Manufacturing Services
C. J.: When it comes to electronics manufacturing, what makes AISLER different than other companies, such as OSH Park?
Felix: What we do is really nothing new. There are thousands of companies out there doing the same. I think what makes us special is that we don’t think in orders. We believe a customer’s project is much more than that. Our manufacturing capabilities are just a means to an end to help our customers get from their prototype to production faster. We believe we can be the best in making it as simple as possible for our customers to get to that stage.
C. J.: What’s your business model?
Felix: We provide Powerful Prototyping for your electronics project. Our goal is to make prototyping as fun and effortless as possible. Our business model reflects that goal, as we get paid to deliver on that promise. With us you will get your prototype validated in eight business days world-wide.
C. J.: Who are your customers? Can you give us two examples of companies or makers who are using your electronics manufacturing services?
Felix: Unfortunately, I cannot disclose any corporate clients because they manufacture with us under NDA and have not signed us a release. What I can disclose though is that 40% of our customers are businesses. In Europe, we also serve as a supplier for stock-listed companies and universities regularly. For an overview of some projects from makers, I can recommend to browse our public projects where our customers have chosen to completely open-source their designs and make them available to everyone.
C. J.: Do you serve customers only in Germany and the Netherlands? What about the United States and beyond?
Felix: We have delivered Powerful Prototypes to over 100 countries. Obviously, our home turf is Europe, so we are very strong here, especially in the EU countries. But over a third of our customers are US-based.
C. J.: How would you describe the electronics maker scene in Europe? Is it healthy? Growing? Where do you see the biggest business opportunities in the next several months?
Felix: While the term “maker” was not invented in Europe, the craft of making has existed in various subcultures for long. I wasn’t alive back then, but I often hear that the maker scene today is comparable to the homebrew scene in the late 70s. Arduino and Raspberry Pi on the hardware side, and Fritzing on the software side have paved the way for Physical Computing and made electronics development much more approachable. These platforms have all been invented in Europe and benefited from these subcultures. Today, this legacy allows pretty much everyone on the planet with basic software development skills to build a project with sensors and logic. It is these people that are still extremely underserved by European manufacturers. I therefore believe the biggest opportunity is for anyone to build services that bring electronics manufacturing to the mainstream. Makers spearhead that movement, but professional companies will soon follow suit.
C.J.: Provide some details about AISLER’s electronics manufacturing services. What are Beautiful Boards, Precious Parts, and Stellar Stencil?
Felix: AISLER is all about powerful prototyping. What exactly makes a prototype powerful? We believe it is an intricate combination of online software that allows you to improve and document your project while at the same time capable hardware manufacturing delivers your prototype in a nice package within eight business days worldwide. We carefully selected and partnered only with the best manufacturers in Germany to provide our customers with only the best experience to validate their designs quickly. We absolutely love alliterations, which is why we named our physical products Beautiful Boards, Precious Parts, and Stellar Stencil:
- Our Beautiful Boards are a set of three boards each: one to make, one to break, one for a friend to take. They are professionally manufactured in Germany with ENIG-finish and come with a flat rate for everything else. So, you don’t have to worry about drills, drill sizes, inner millings, or slots. Beautiful Boards start at €5.70, international shipping included.
- Our Precious Parts is a set that packages your project’s components nicely, so you can validate if all parts properly fit the way you planned them. Every component is labelled with the according design designator so assembling your prototype is as simple as a breeze. Never forget an important part ever again, as all come together with your set of Beautiful Boards.
- Our Stellar Stencil is an industry-grade stencil made out of durable 120-µm stainless steel manufactured in Germany. It comes with an unlimited pad flat rate. It is polished and framed with plenty of space to make SMD soldering a piece of cake. It can be included with your set of Beautiful Boards starting at just €5.
From Idea to Prototype
C. J.: What is involved with starting a project with AISLER?
Felix: You navigate to Aisler.net and simply drag to upload a CAD file to our server for processing. We accept standards like Gerber and GerberX2 but also support uploading Eagle, KiCad, Target3001!, and Fritzing natively. You are then directly presented with the project’s landing page displaying renderings of your board. You can start ordering your project’s Powerful Prototype.
When you have mistakenly ordered an incorrect or malfunctioning iteration, you can upload a new revision and change your order to a new revision for free until the design has been sent to manufacturing. After our customers received the Powerful Prototype and validated or improved it, they can upload a new revision to start iterating their project towards production. All information is contained on the project’s page, including datasheets for all assigned parts and information about manufactured revisions. That way, our customers keep track of their project and won’t ever lose important information.
C. J.: Do you have any advice for an engineer thinking about bringing an idea to prototype?
Felix: Nothing should stop a great idea. Spec it in a design tool and get it manufactured as soon as possible to see whether it works. Don’t think about Design for Manufacturing in the first iteration. First get the logic to work; you can always improve it later. Most of our customers iterate on a prototype more than three times before they think it is ready for production. Iterations are not expensive anymore. Run a lot of them to get better.
Another big misconception is misunderstood economies of scale. Purchasing large quantities won’t necessarily save costs. Most likely, it is even more expensive to achieve economies of scale because you will have exchanged them for high inventory costs instead. Small manufactured batches will allow you to test the market and then scale up later. Maybe you won’t ever need large quantities. Do not sacrifice your agility for this. It can be a very expensive mistake.
C. J.: Describe the AISLER team. How many employees do you have? Are you all located in Germany?
Felix: We didn’t think about hiring people for the first two years. As we achieved what people today would call product-market fit, we started hiring people. That was difficult at first, because we were used to being on our own. However, we adopted a pragmatic hiring approach. Being close to the university in Aachen helped, but we also worked closely with trusted freelancers. That allowed us to select the right people that were eager to build the product.
While the operations have long been outsourced to a German subsidiary where we employ our logistics team, all core teams — including software development, marketing, and business development — are located in our headquarters in the southern part of the Netherlands (Figure 2).
C. J.: Tell us about the process of starting and launching an electronics manufacturing company. Did you bootstrap it? Or did you have investors from the start?
Felix: For both Patrick and I, this was the first time setting up a company. We knew a bit about how these things go because we had an interest in startups and followed them on the media. But as we learned the hard way, there is no such thing as overnight success. We thought we were iterating on the product, but in fact we didn’t have one. If we had taken on investors at that stage, this would have been a recipe for disaster. Heck, we almost closed this thing. But we both knew we were onto something and tried one more time, and that’s where we got lucky because the timing couldn’t have been better to start a prototyping company in Europe.
C. J.: What about now? Do you have investors?
Felix: We don’t have any investors. We have a profitable business model and are growing well enough organically. So why should we need them?
C. J.: What has been the most difficult aspect of growing the company?
Felix: We started this venture with only the two of us. Today, we have a steadily growing team. Getting the right people onboard that share our aspirations wasn’t easy. Once we knew we were onto something we started hiring but we had to ask ourselves three questions: Who exactly would be the right one; when would be the right time to hire; and where should we look for talent? We went through a couple of iterations until we found the right fit. Today, I believe we found a great way to get the right people onboard. Yet, I would consider this the most difficult aspect of growing.
C. J.: What has been the most rewarding thing about running AISLER?
Felix: Even though we never see them, we have a very close email relationship with our customers. Listening to their stories and how we help them achieve to build what they want drives us every day. I personally envy them as I never had that creativity, but our company can help them realize theirs. In our office, we have a whole wall full of mail with praise and potential improvements from our customers. This shows us they care as well.
C. J.: How do you measure AISLER’s success?
Felix: I would consider AISLER successful when our customers iterate their projects from the first prototype to series production as much and swift as possible. Obviously, we want to play a large part in this process — i.e., alleviating the customer of the tedious discussions with manufacturers and bringing the customer’s design to market as fast as possible.
C. J.: Where would you like to see the company 12 months from now?
Felix: We currently run a closed beta with a select set of our best customers to pilot our new product “Amazing Assembly,” an affordable and accessible assembly service. Within the next 12 months, I see us bringing this to all of our customers and fulfilling quick and swift assembly services for small quantities at affordable costs.
This article will also appear in the November 2018 edition of Elektor Industry magazine.