This is James (Laen) Neal, owner and operator of OSH Park, home of the purple boards. OSH Park makes prototype quantity printed circuit boards, targeted for inventors and makers and at-home engineers who don't want to etch themselves but want to have a commercial quality board for about the same price.
(Full disclosure: my first order from OSH Park, or the PDX PCB batch order as it was called then, was in January of 2012. Laen keeps all of his emails and we went back in time to find my order nearly 3 years ago.)
Sophi (S): It seems that buying boards from OSH Park costs about the same or not much more than etching.
Laen (L): Yes, when you factor in all the different tries, getting your equipment ready, if you do an etch tank. Before I started OSH Park, I went the home etching route with ferric chloride and trying the various transfer papers instead of just doing the magazine paper. Including all my time on it, it turned out to be quite expensive to do.. Certainly it can be faster, because you can make a board in a couple of hours instead of having to wait a week but…..
S: What is the turn-around time from OSH Park? Is OSH Park doing fast turnaround?
L: Right now the advertised turn-around time is 12 days, from ordering to shipping. We've managed to push the average down, so right now it is 8 days from ordering to shipping.
Note: Since this interview, OSH Park has launched its Super Swift Service, $89 for 5 days or under turn time!
S: You say that your target market is home-builders and makers and you say that because you feel engineers in larger companies do not necessarily need the quick turn-around.
L: Most people asking for the quick turn-around are students in the days before finals, trying to get their boards back super quick, and of course the professional engineering firms (located in offices outside the home) are making up a larger percent of my business.
Note: OSH Park specifications can be found here: https://oshpark.com/pricing
S: When we first met, you were working in a good and probably stable job in IT, tell us about that.
L: I was a systems administrator and systems engineer. When I started, I was working at Xerox, when I left I was working at Nike on their web operations team, supporting Nike.com, the Fuel band stuff and the web hosting platform that Nike uses.
S: That sounds like a good and stable job for the rest of your life kind of thing
L: Yes, I had been in this career for about 20 years so I was really in it for a while.
S: 20 years! When did you graduate college?
L: I didn't graduate college but I was in college when I got started with my first job there as a systems administrator..
S: How did you get into being a Systems Administrator?
L: In high school I had a summer apprenticeship at Portland State University. While, there, I hooked up with the team that manages the computer systems for the University ( at Portland State the team is run by the student community). And so I got involved with that and it was super fun so by the time I graduated high school, I was already an employee of the University in this program. After the internship I just stayed on as a volunteer for about a year, then after that I was hired on as a faculty.
S: Was their terminology apprenticeship?
L: In Portland, there's a high school apprenticeship program called "Apprenticeships in Science and Engineering", run by a non-profit called "Saturday Academy". They aim to put high school students in apprenticeships with professionals and this was the one that I ended up in.
S: I feel that apprenticeships are so needed in Science and Engineering
L: Apprenticeships are the best way to learn.You get someone experienced in the field who is eager to share their knowledge and because they are a mentor, they signed up for this, and they can end up being a life-long mentor.
S: Was it easy for you to make the decision to quit your full time job? How did you come to make the decision?
L: I had to think about it a lot. By the end of my time there, I was putting in a full day at the day job, and then coming home to do 8 hours of OSHPark. If I needed to take a day of OSHPark off, then that was 8 hours or 16 hours of work. It was really exhausting, and left me with a hard choice: I either had to leave the day job and do OSH Park or quit OSH Park. It would have been nice to choose the job with the health benefits, but this one (OSH Park) was ultimately where my joy had moved to. This is what was fun for me, this is what I wanted, so I chose OSH Park.
S: It has been stated by a number of well-known women that in order for a woman to be successful, she needs her partner to support her in the household duties. So for you, going out on your own with such a heavy workload from the very beginning, did your partner help support you in this way?
L: Absolutely. My wife has entirely managed the household during the busy times. And so for the months I was doing a day job and OSH Park, I was able to do this for that additional 8 hours a day I needed to. When I quit the day job, that gave me bunch of extra time and owning your own business gives you a lot more flexibility of hours, and so I was better able to do my share around the house and fulfill the duties and joys of parenting.
S: Once you made that decision to move on from Nike, did you start OSH Park out with investors?
L: No, it is entirely self-funded.
S: And do you have investors coming after you now?
L: I do and so far the answer has been no. I like having the freedom to run things the way I see it. I like really not having anyone to answer to or explain things to. That is certainly not something that I miss from a corporate environment, having someone always asking for status updates and things like that. I can set my own schedule and pursue whatever priorities that I think are best.
S: It seems as though OSH Park has a very good reputation. Do you get many complaints? Do you feel that you are doing well service-wise?
L: We have an amazingly supportive community that we service. Problems with boards are pretty rare, but when it happens it's almost never an angry response....it's more like hey, I got these boards made and when they came back, this was not what I expected and is it something that I did, something that I could do differently next time...which is great, because I have had angry customers in the past before (in the old day job). In general, people are used to really bad support, so one of my core values when starting this was give the best support I could possibly afford. If the customers know you are looking out for them then almost every support request can be a positive one.
S: OSH Park has definitely enabled the engineering/maker/hacker community to make boards iteratively. Because of the extremely reasonable cost, it has taken away their fear of spending several hundred dollars on a board only to find out that your battery is drawn in backwards.
L: Before OSH Park, the choices were very expensive, when you would go to a fab yourself, you'd be paying for that whole panel whether you were using 5 square inches or 300 square inches. And if you go abroad to one of the batching services, you have no idea how long it is going to take to get the boards back. And so, my goal here was to give you a set time, so you would know that your board was going to be shipped to you by a certain date when you ordered it. And that you wouldn’t be on the hook for a whole lot of money if the board didn’t work out.
S: So is that the innovative thing that OSH Park does- putting a lot of unrelated boards onto one panel? I realize that that's what OSH Park does, I didn't realize that other board houses did not do that too.
L: Yes, some fabs try to do it and they try to do it by hand or use software to do it that isn’t very good. I think my main innovation here was improving panelization efficiency and automating it.
S: How did you automate it?
L: Lots of programming! My training as a sys admin taught me to use whatever language is best to use at the time. So it's a lot of different code in a lot of languages. It consists of a bunch of Ruby code, a bunch of modifications to existing Python code that was out there, a ton of shell scripts, and a beautiful web interface to accept the orders.
Architecturally, there's the website which accepts orders and payment and notifies me that there are orders to be taken care of. And that was all written by a contractor, resistor.io, a fantastic rails house based in New Zealand. Then it feeds into my scripts, which take all of those orders, stick them onto panels to optimize for space and manufacturing concerns and things like that and then ship them off to the fab to be fabricated.
S: And then the customers get these awesome emails throughout the process, which I think is really cool: Panelized, Received, Depanelized, and Shipped. I think it's fascinating to know where my boards are in the process.
L: I'm glad you think so, I've always wondered if it's a little much- if you order 5 boards, that's 20 emails! No one has complained about this, so I guess it's OK.
S: So all of that is automated as well?
L: Yes, that's all automated through the website....the state of the order. That's even what is in the code, it says Here's the State Machine for panels, here's the State Machine for orders....
S: So now I'm wondering if this leaves any work for you to do or do you just hang out and cheer on the Automation!
L: There is still a lot that I haven't automated, that I don't automate, that I can’t just because it's sanity check stuff. So before I send the panel to the fab which will cost A LOT, I make sure that the panel looks ok, that the boards aren't interfering with each other, that the boards have drill hits because the number one manufacturing issue that I see is people who send drill files in the wrong format..... so I just check everything out before actually ordering the panel.
S: What do you mean about the drill files being in the wrong format?
L: Drill files can be in metric or imperial, if you look at drill files, they have x and y coordinates in the drill file and it doesn’t say in the file how many of these holes are in inches or how many are in mm... a drill file can be in 2.5 format, which for example, the x coordinate can be a 7 digit number, the first two numbers are inches and the rest are fractions of the inch. There is an imaginary decimal point between the first two and the last 5. Similarly, It can be in 2.4 format or 2.3 format. If there's any 0s at the beginning or the end they can be left off...so it could give you a 3 digit number and you're like where is the line for inches and decimals here?.
S: That sounds so confusing! How do you figure out which format the files are in?
L: We tell everyone to give us the drill files in 2.4 format, and there are a lot of CAD packages. I think I have detectors for 50 different CAD packages to try and catch these things beforehand. So many of them will do different drill file formats by default. You can upload Eagle boards files directly though, as BRD files instead of the Gerbers, which reduces error as well.
S: 50 CAD packages! What are some of least popular ones being uploaded at OSH Park?
L: Orcad, PADS aren't uploaded often....I recently got files from a CAD package with copyright dates of 1991....In order of most popular, it's Eagle, Altium, Kicad, Diptrace....the rest are fighting for 2% of the orders.
S: Does OSH Park have employees?
L: We do. I hired my first employee about 2 months after I quit working at Nike. I realized that I was the weakest link...and if the business was going to succeed, I needed help. The very first employee was a wonderful woman from Dorkbot named Kelly who is responsible for all the shipping. When the panels come in, she splits them up and makes sure that everyone gets their boards. I have employees for all the other major things, a customer service person named Dan who helps when people order their boards, and a social media person names Cat who publicizes the boards that go through the system.
S: Do you have growth plans?
L: The business has been growing at a good clip all on its own.
S: It's been going for three years?
L: Actually the very first Dorkbot PCB order shipped in December of 2009. It started about 5 years ago with the Dorkbot PCB order, and 5 months later I switched the business to OSH Park.
Note: Dorkbot is a worldwide electronics organization that has meetings in cities all over the world. Dorkbot PDX PCB in Laen's context, was a batch PCB order that came out of the Portland Dorkbot meetings, which often hosts as many as 50 people.
S: So upcoming, what do we have to look forward to in OSH Park?
L: Now that we're uploading panels daily to the fab, I'd like to offer more options. First of all, there's the fast track service that I so often hear...hey, is there any way I can get the boards by this time next week? So now I have a way to do that.
S: Where are the boards made?
L: I use a few different places, I use two fabs that are in Chicago, and one that is based in Texas. So all of the boards are made in the US, which is very important to me. One reason for favoring the US in manufacturing is that there wouldn't be a way to get the boards back quickly if they were made overseas. Another reason is that I am concerned about the labor laws that the overseas fabs are governed with. I feel as though manufacturing circuit boards is a dangerous and messy business, or at least can be if there aren't adequate worker protections. I wanted to make sure that my boards are made with the right kinds of environmental and labor protections. This doesn't rule out the European OSH park as they have similar protections as in the US.
S: Is there a European OSH Park?
L: We are going to be. Right now my focus has been on speeding up shipping times internationally, but shortly we are going to have to start shipping inside of Europe.
S: Are you planning to stuff boards as well?
L: Yes, assembly is part of the road map as well, particularly for larger runs. We'd be partnering with an assembler, the same way we partner with circuit board fabs, this way we can still give people a professional product without me sitting at home with a soldering iron. I don’t want to do the capital expenditure for the pick and place machine and to hire and train the people to run it. It very well may come to that but so far American assembly is very expensive ... I really thought that placing a resistor was practically free, but it costs about a quarter. So I don't think I could do a business targeted at makers and home engineers with that sort of price point.
S: Where do you see OSH Park going?
L: I really want to see it more as a community. My idea when I first started this was that people would upload their ideas, share their projects and have a repository of ideas showing here's the schematic, the code, the board file, kind of github for hardware. Really though, other people have been taking up this flag, so I'd like to see OSH Park partner with them and still turn it into that sort community, I just want to help Makers make!
To contact OSH Park
or @oshpark on Twitter