Innovator: Open Beam creator Terence Tam

This entry is my first Innovator Interview, Terence Tam, creator of the amazing Open Beam aluminum system launched on KickStarter. I first discovered Open Beam while doing research for my CNC machine. After being so happy with the product I contacted Terence for an interview. He graciously took time out of his busy schedule to speak with me about OpenBeam, how an engineer cooks a turkey, and lessons learned from running a KickStarter project. I think you will enjoy reading is as much as I enjoyed talking with him.

JM: Why don't you introduce yourself and talk about what OpenBeam is.

TT: Okay so, my name is Terence Tam and I am a mechanical design engineer. I have a day job working at a company that builds optical microscopes for biological sciences research.  I came up with OpenBeam in my spare time.


Prototype Quad-Robot.  Richard DeLeon, Metrix:Create Space

OpenBeam is an extruded aluminum construction system. In the industry it's called a T-slot extrusion and the name comes from the four T shaped slots that run down the sides of the beam. The thing that makes Open Beam different than most of our competitors is that it is an open source system. We publish all the mechanical CAD files, publish the engineer prints and publish all of the specifications, which is why it's called OpenBeam.

JM: So someone could make their own beam on their own out of some other material if they wanted to?

TT: Well, yeah, there could be someone using Kickstarter money for Tangi-beam out there, but more importantly the CAD files for all of the connectors are are freely available. You actually could print a set of them on a Rep-Rap if you like. It's probably not going to be cost effective for you to do so because we injection mold them and we run the mold in pretty high quantities which brings the cost down. So that brings me to the other part of what makes OpenBeam unique. Because it’s open source and crowd funded, I do not have investors to answer to. I designed the system for the lowest cost possible. I did this by injection molding the joining plates and use standard metric nuts instead of proprietary nuts.

JM: Is that common among other systems? To have special dimensions that require special parts?

TT: As far as I know pretty much everyone requires you to buy a special nut from them. And that's actually where most companies make their money. They sell the beam at ten dollars per meter which is a pretty common price, but then charge 30 cents a nut, and with each joint needing 3-5 nuts, this adds up quickly.

JM: Woah. So that's the razors and blades model.

TT: Exactly.

JM: Had you used some other extrusion before and then decide to go your own route?

TT: Yeah. I used 80/20 quite a bit early on in my tech career. I used to mentor for FIRST robotics (Dean Kamens For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology program,) where mentors partner up with kids and we have six and a half weeks to build a robot. We used a lot of 80/20 for our competition robots. It's a nice system. It's a little heavy for competition use so we’d end up drilling a lot of holes in the extrusions where we didn’t need the material to take the weight off. But it is a very flexible system. I mean, with a team of kids we can give them a bunch of Allen keys and nuts and bolts and in four hours they can build a frame and start driving around, so it's definitely a very powerful system. For work we use 80/20 for some framing for prototyping and such. We've switched to OpenBeam at work, obviously.

JM: It's always good to eat your own dog food.

TT: Right. Definitely I use OpenBean for work projects and personal projects.



Kaloss Crate.  Matt Westervelt, Metrix:Create Space

JM: So do you have rack in your kitchen made out of OpenBeam?

TT: Um… that hasn't passed the girlfriend acceptance test yet but I use it a lot in my garage for storage. I have some robotics projects that are using it and some 3D printer projects. At work mostly I use it for framework for building test equipment.

JM: Now you said there is a 3D printer project. I notice you just posted on one of your several blogs about something called, what was it, lemon drop?

TT: Lemon Curry. Lemon Curry is actually a Rep Rap project. As far as I can tell there isn't an official Lemon Curry machine yet; it's still just a collection of links. But it's really a mission to build a DLP projector based resin printer. The common Rep Raps are all extrusion based or fused filament fabrication (FFF) machines where you have a spaghetti of resin passing through what is essentially a hot glue gun and depositing it using either an XY bot or a Rep-Rap style bot.

JM: And that's why a lot of the things I've seen produced that way, they sort of have these striated lines in them?

TT: Right, if you look closely at them you can see layers where the spaghetti has melted and re-soldered. You can see the different layers. In a DLP resin type machine your building material is actually a photo polymer, which is a kind of plastic that is tuned to harden into solid plastic at a very specific wave length of light. So there are resins that will harden at about 405nm and 385nm (UV range). At 405nm you can actually use visible light to hit the resin and it will cure. So the machine that I'm building takes the solid geometry and slices it and instead of trying to extrude with an XY print head, it's taking the cross sections and projecting it with a DLP project onto a vat of resin, and the part is pulled out of this vat.

JM: So it's doing an entire layer at a time, then?

TT: Yes and potentially it can build faster and you can hit higher accuracy with it. We are currently looking at using 100 micron in XYZ steps, at 100 microns the projector I'm using is 1024x768 so that 104x76.8 mm build space and you can hit 0.1 mm resolution. Each pixel cures a 0.1x0.1 mm area on the resin. So it's a pretty high resolution machine and the biggest advantage over a FFF machine is there won't be any delamination problems. In an FFF build, because of the way the layers are laid out the part is actually really strong in X and Y but if you flex it in the Z axis you can actually shear layers off. In a resin printer because of the way the curing process works the entire object cures in a solid block so there aren't layers that you can delaminate at a later time.

 

JM: So how close are you having your first print?

TT: I want to do this right. What I mean by "doing this right" is, I'm using OpenBeam, of course, and I'm using Open Rail as my linear bearing.  I'm developing a lower cost linear bearing carriage for Open Rail. The reason for doing this is, well, I love what the Open Rail guys have done but I think for 3D printer applications the V-groove bearings are a little bit expensive and, frankly, probably a overkill. So I'm trying to develop an injected molded part and I'm prototyping it by machining it out of production representative materials. I can test the plastic's self-lubrication properties. I'm probably four to six weeks away from my first print.

JM: So this would be a different carriage but it would still attach to the Open Rail?

TT: Yes, this would be a different slider carriage.  My design would be modular so people can adapt it for Maker Slide and Open Rail, and of course Open Rail + OpenBeam combinations. There are couple of dimensions I'm going for. Specifically if you are going to use the OpenBeam NEMA 17 motor mount you can put one of the OpenBeams on each side and that spans a 75mm gap. I'm designing it so that on a 75mm gap, if you put the Open Rail extrusions on the sides the carriage will slide right over that. You can put matching brackets on the other side, you can use a 608 bearing adapter to mount a tensioner pulley and so for about twenty five dollars total worth of hardware you now have a linear rail system. (My goal is to keep the carriage under ten dollars.)

JM: That would be great. When I first started looking into CNC machines I found the linear rail system was always the most expensive part.

TT: Right, and if we can drop the price on that and drop the price on the 3D printer electronics (and I know some guys at Metrix:Create Space working on that problem,) we can drop the price of a 3D printer significantly.


H-Bot Prototype.  Gavin Smith, Robots and Dinosaurs

JM: I'm curious, what drove you to decide to make your own company and launch a new product? Was it just that you wanted it to exist? I mean, lots of people came up against these problems but they didn't decide to start a company around it?

 

TT: Well, I think when you are building an open source hardware project like this you really need some sort of continuity. This can't be just a flash in the pan project on KickStarter. For all of the guys who've backed me on KickStarter, it would be a real shame if I tomorrow I decided "you know what I'm tired of this, I don't want to do this anymore". I kind of got the feeling that's what MakerBeam did. If you look at their history and you look at their fulfillment, yeah they fulfilled their KickStarter rewards but today if you want to buy MakerBeam the only place you can buy it is through Spark Fun in the

US. And you can only buy it in either a small or large kit. You can't buy individual components. It's a very restrictive purchasing model. So it's really unfair to all of the guys who have backed them because now they have a bunch of parts and can't get more. There's nothing worse than not being able to get more and build stuff. So at the beginning of the KickStarter I decided that I would spin up a company to do this, to handle fulfillment and ongoing support.

 

Now, truth be told, yeah the extra income source is nice, but I've actually reinvested everything back into my company. I setup the project in such a way that when I bought my first lot of extrusions I would have a lot of additional material left over. If people needed extra material they could order it from me and I could ship it to them. We have a web store up and running now at openbeamusa.com.

JM: So you planned this as a business from the beginning; something that would be sustainable?

TT: Right. I designed this to be sustainable. Someone else is handling fulfillment for me so when my day job becomes too busy I'm not delaying orders by three or four weeks before I can ship them. Someone else is doing the packaging and shipping. I decided to be a very hands off when it comes to day to day operations  My time with OpenBeam right now is spent on building the infrastructure and growing the community. I'm working on a forum right now. I'm working on getting open designs out there around OpenBeam so that people can reference them and design around them.

JM: The KickStarter ended fairly recently, right? May or June?

 

TT: It ended in late April, early May.

JM: When did your web store open?

TT: I never really announced it to the world but at the end of June it was running. For the first eight weeks I was more concerned about fulfilling the existing KickStarter pledges. With the exception of the trebuchet kits, which we are still building, tuning and

documenting, we've shipped all of our orders from KickStarter. The majority of them shipped in June with a few in July. We actually shipped earlier than the original schedule.

JM: I seem to recall you had some issues with actually figuring out how to mail heavy pieces of metal through the postal service.

TT: *laughs* Yeah. Actually it was FedEx.  We had all the orders ready to go but I didn't feel too confident, I guess.  So I randomly grabbed five orders and shipped them first. I was actually more concerned about the billing and the database merging and making sure that all the waivers are generated correctly, so I wouldn't be hit with a six digit FedEx bill. And then the reports came in like  "hey man, you shipped me an empty tube!" or "hey man, I got the extrusions and nothing else!". We later found out the tubes had been breaking open in shipping and FedEx had been sealing them back up for us.

JM: Well, that's a good thing to learn.

TT: So our backers received the orders fully sealed but all of the stuff on the inside was gone! So we put a ship hold into effect. We re-engineered the package. We actually did a bunch of drop testing. FedEx has a standard test. It's something like 6 drops from one meter onto a steel plate.  We engineered our packages to survive that at a minimum. Our package can withstand about twelve drops from eight feet onto concrete. We have this on high speed camera. We looked at the footage and documented everything. FedEx is in the process of certifying our packaging right now so we can get a discounted insurance rate from them. All of this is to put us in a better position so that when we put out a package we know that our customers will receive it in good condition.

 

It's funny. For most people who do a KickStarter, shipping and handling is probably the last thing on their mind. You go through such a long process to bring a project to life, but that last piece is so critical. The first thing that your customers will see is your packaging. If there is any damages when they open it all the hard work is washed down the drain. I wish I had paid more attention earlier on to my packaging. That's one of my regrets about the way that my KickStarter went. It's not bad right now, it does the job, but it could have been better.

JM:  I have to say all of the extrusion I ordered arrived in perfect shape. The metal caps on the end are sturdy. I had to get out my big pliers to open it.

TT: But the metal caps are about a buck fifty per package and that's not including the cost of the tubes. And it's a one time use cap. Once we pound that cap in there's no way to get it back out. Someone once ordered something, asked to upgrade the shipping to air freight, and asked me to toss in an extra screwdriver.  I was like, "Umm.. no. You've seen how we package these things." It's pretty much a destructive process to get anything out so… It does the job, but it's kind of a pain in the butt sometimes.

JM: It sounds like you've really designed this to be a coherent business that has a bright future. Are you planning to start ramping up production? Do you have advertising? Are you going to start working with retailers or resellers?

TT: Right now I'm more focused on the international backers. The reason for that is the challenges of shipping internationally are about five times bigger than shipping domestically. Domestically, if someone has heard about OpenBeam already, they know where to get it. The URL is molded into every plastic piece that we sell. Our existing infrastructure, although not great, will handle domestic orders just fine. Twenty percent of our KickStarter backers were international though. They come from all over the European Union. They come from Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Rim region. I think I've got a couple of guys in Russia. Supporting these guys is important too, but it can't be a hundred bucks in shipping for fifty bucks in parts. So we are very actively trying to spin up international distributors. Solarbotics actually just became our first international distributor. If you are Canadian, SolarBotics.com actually carries OpenBeam components now. We are talking to someone in New Zealand and Australia. We are hoping to have Hong Kong coming on line as a distribution point. They will service Singapore and probably some of the other international orders until the EU guys have spun up.

 

So that's where my focus has been. I'd like to do some more advertising in the US. I'm actually kind of on a budget crunch right now so I'm not sure if running an ad is going to be the best way to do this, but I do a lot of "community outreach". So whenever I'm traveling, like in about three or four weeks I have to go to the Twin Cities Minnesota area for a wedding, I always see if there's a local hacker space. I bring an OpenBeam kit and I offer to buy them pizza. That's how I've been selling Open Beam in the US. And it works. I mean, not to sound cocky, but the product sells itself.  The guys who are into building things, they are my target audience; and they screw a couple of parts together and then they get it.

JM: I took some to our local maker space here and the guys were very excited to play around with it.

JM: So, after you get all of your shipping stuff worked out what do you think is the next step? Do you want to introduce kits? Bullk pricing? New brackets?

TT: So there's a couple of exciting things going on. We've actually partnered up with MicroRax and we're going to be offering pre-cut lengths and pre-cut construction kits. MicroRax will also have the ability to do custom length cut extrusions too. With that I can then offer a kitting service to 3D printer builders. There are a couple of plans out there for Rep Rap machines that use extrusions. I can actually offer a kitting service to guys who are designing 3D printers and my dealer pricing is very competitive, and the total cost of ownership is probably lower than Misumi when you factor in the bracket and fastener costs.

I plan to offer my design in a kit form as well. That competition will help lower 3D printer pricing across the board. I have a couple of friends at Metrix that are working on cheaper 3D printer electronics, so that's pretty cool. We are going to be releasing kits in conjunction with them. With the pre-cut kits, I'm probably going to be shipping some kits out for review and hopefully getting some interest and business that way.


Camera rig with iPod teleprompter.  Matt Westervelt, Metrix:Create Space

JM: I notice that you have a couple of other blogs. There's one for yourself and one for TamLabs, though it looks like you haven't updated them in a while. I'm guessing you've been very busy lately.

TT: *laughs*. Yeah.. So I have a personal blog at terencetam.com.  I think the last update is "okay guys! the KickStarter is going live!"

JM: And then you just fell off the face of the earth.

TT: Yup. I like to cook and I like to take pictures, so that's pretty much my outlet for documenting recipes and photos I've shot.

JM: Now did I see in the blog a turkey with wires hooked up to it?

TT: *laugh*. Yes you did. So there's actually a fun story behind that. That was the first time I had to cook for my current girlfriend's, actually soon to be fiancée's, parents. They tasked us with providing the turkey for the Thanksgiving dinner; for both of her grandmothers and her parents and a couple of aunts and uncles. Well, if you ask an engineer to cook a turkey on a barbecue that's what you're going to get. It's a couple of thermocouples monitoring the cooking process. We did a couple of test runs and we ate a lot of smoked turkey in the week leading up to Thanksgiving making sure that we got it down.

JM: So you had all of your trials beforehand. What was the final result?

TT: I thought it was a little bit over cooked to be honest, but they loved it. They said it was one of the moistest turkeys they've ever had. It would have been preferable to have two smaller birds instead of one big bird, that said... the thermocouples are accurate to three degrees centigrade so by monitoring the temperature you can pull it out the moment it's done. There's only about a fifteen degree range for white meat before it turns really, really dry, so that was why we had all the instrumenting and monitoring. It was a really cold winter day in Chicago so I kept the fire going, smoked it over apple wood, and it turned out okay.

JM: Well they liked it, that's all that matters.

TT: Yeah, they liked it! Exactly!

JM: Were you happy with your KickStarter experience? Do you think you would do another one?

TT: Yes. I am definitely looking into another KickStarter, probably one for the linear bearing block once I have it designed. There are some minor issues with KickStarter in how it handles data and the tools. After my last rewards ship out I will be doing a series of blog articles on my post mortem. I'll probably email the KickStarter team a link to it with some of the constructive criticisms of their websites. But overall it has been really positive.  The cool thing, and maybe it's because I'm in the open hardware / technology category, everybody has been really, really great and really understanding. When I had problems with shipping everybody was like "yeah hey. No worries. We understand. Delays happen. We'd rather that you sort this out before you take orders on the web-store". Not one person complained about the communications or the delays.

JM: Perhaps we are all just so used to dealing with beta software.

TT: Yeah. Certainly when you read some comments on the more consumer product oriented stuff, like the iPhone docks, you hear a lot more people complaining about "oh they slipped their dead line… This is bogus. The guys took their money and ran." I had none of that. I'm really thankful to my backers for that.

JM: When you launch your next product, why are you thinking of going with KickStarter rather than just making a run at trying to sell it?

TT: Well.  If you think about the percentage that they take, the 5% off the top of the project, it's some of the cheapest advertising you can buy. Open Beam raised over $100k. KickStarter took 5% of it, so just over $5k and another $5k or so went to Amazon credit card processing fees. For me to run a single run of ads in Make Magazine, that itself is going to cost $1500. Essentially for $5,000 I got a product that was publicized around the world. I look at the countries and continents that my backers are coming from and I say to myself, “holy crap.” Even on a $20k advertising budget I wouldn't know how to reach some of these guys. That alone is worth it to me.

The other thing that's nice with open hardware is that it takes a lot of the risk out of the picture. Especially with open hardware, where I'm publishing my drawings, my cad files, all the specifications, etc….

JM: I imagine you still have to have a lot of capital to do that initial order.

TT: Yeah, there's a bunch of capital involved and the same time my only protection is to move fast and keep innovating, and be reasonable about the prices I charge.

JM: I've been very happy with the beam. I'm heading forward on my own 3D printer.

TT: I'm really happy to hear that.

JM: What do you think people are going to build with OpenBeam? It sounds like robots are on the table and certainly 3D printers. What else do you think people would want to do with it?

TT: Just today I got an enquiry from someone building a Magic card sorting robot. I thought that was pretty cool.

JM: A magic card… oh the Magic the Gathering cards?

TT: Yeah. *laughs* There's a couple of guys in Spain working on a structured 3D light scanner and another gentleman is building his own hologram studio with OpenBeam. I'm hoping that he'll share some photos of what he has done.

JM: I'd love to see a project gallery on the site.

TT: Yeah. I'm working on that too. There's some pretty cool projects in the works, definitely. There's a school in Marin County that just bought a bunch of OpenBeam so I'm guessing their students will be building a bunch of robots.  The cool thing about being a construction system like this is you do get a lot of creative folks. Watching what they come up with is quite a reward.

JM: Awesome.  Thank you Terence!