a visit to pimoroni, sheffield

Whenever I travel for work or whatever, if I get the chance I drop into the local Hackspace. In Sheffield it’s a little different, there isn’t really a Hackspace, save for Access Space which isn’t quite one (though a worthy place all the same). Instead I go and visit Paul and Jon at Pimoroni on Burton Road. It was my first visit since 2012 and the Pirate Ship had come a long way since then.

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Pimoroni which stands for Pirate, Monkey, Robot, Ninga made it’s fame laser cutting the perspex PiBow, the colourful case for the Raspberry Pi computer development board. The case made of stacked up colour perspex is still selling well and the crew are still cutting cases for the order books even with five laser cutters running full tilt.

Last time I visited they were getting ready to roll our the UK’s first Kickstarter project the PiCade an RPi  based arcade emulator in a funky desktop sized cabinet. This Kicjstarter campaign managed to bust it’s target and pull in more than double the original goal. On my visit they were almost done fore-filing the reward pre-ordered units and getting ready to think about a stock PiCade for their webshop. The PiCade boards are being soldered in house using their pick-and-place machine and re-flow soldering machine thing in the picture down there.

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Also Gee Bartlett (@rabid_inventor) was there messing about with an analogue rotary counter and Arduino. Jon and Paul who run Pimoroni showed me a board called the PiBrella a new shield aimed at helping kids have a good breakout board for Raspberry Pi with all the analogue and digital inputs and outputs neatly lined up. I was quite pleased to see there “production line” in operation too with PiCades, PiHubs and PiGlows in various states of finished, all neatly labelled in boxes on a wrack.

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I was extremely flattered to be treated to a few pints and a good chat with Jon and Paul down at the local pub, The Gardener’s Rest, which had a super selection of real ales and just the right mix of “old mans” and “quirky” to make anyone feel at home. I complimented the boys on their success and what I thought of their ability to not get stuck in a rut. This is where I feel their true ambition came out “We have more ideas than we can practically develop”  said Jon, between them I saw a hunger to keep things going that I truly admire. “People ask us if things are hitting a lull with the PiBow, but we are selling them as quickly as we can cut them still” said Paul.

Their recent, massively successful Kickstarter project (the UKs first Kickstarter), the PiCade has been a fast-track course in manufacturing forcing them to learn a lot more about ordering and importing parts and having them in stock at the right time, last batch problems, obsolescence, powder-coating and many more challenges besides.  I think there was a feeling of “nearly there” with the PiCade and a relief to be tooling up for a standard production model rather than just the fulfillment of the Kickstarter prizes. The boys main strength to me is being fast and in the right place to deliver a good idea at the right time. They were right there ready with the PiBow when the Raspberry Pi came out and right there ready with the PiCade when the UK Kickstarter launched.

Being “ready” or at least pretending you are, at the right time is a very valuable thing. I see Hackerspaces and individual, talented makers who never get a thing done because they don’t understand what “being ready” means. Endless numbers of Hackerspaces foul themselves up not being “ready” to take payments or not being “ready” to accept new members because of the weird barriers the organisers have thrown in the way in their own heads (more on this in a future post I think). Pimoroni are ready, and in my opinion this is what makes them really good at what they do. I’m quite proud to associate with a successful maker based and maker friendly business like these guys. Whilst they might not thank me for saying so, they’ve also always been “ready” to reach for the wallet where the many Mini Maker Faires I organised are concerned and their sponsorship at the Bristol and Derby Mini Maker Faires was instrumental in making those events the success they were.

Jon and Paul told me that Pimoroni plans to move to a new office much nearer the station very soon. They invited me to come back and visit them when they have moved. I really like to see a small business where the owners are as engaged as the staff. Whenever I visit Pimoroni I get a tremendous feeling of “family” when I visit them. I think they are now employing about 8 or more people with plans to expand the working group, “We’re running out of friends to employ.” joked Jon. To me their little tea-station (pictured below) sums up how they are all mucking in together to make a better business. I’ll be keeping an eye on them and wishing them all the best of luck and continued good fortune!

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Those laser cutters again…

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sub-post: Continuous Improvement Week at Sheffield Town Hall

Going to a little business that has all it’s decisions and processes under one roof made me long for doing Continuous Improvement stuff somewhere that it might make a big difference. As I said when I go away for business I like to pop into the local “Hackspace”. I rarely talk about my real job on my blog and this is going to be a rare exception, but with the names changed to protect the innocent.

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Where I work, I’m sort of the Out-Of-the-Box crazy ideas guy or at least I am compared to most people I work with. Somehow I’ve ended up being the lead on Innovation in my own part of the business I work in. To me a major and important part of innovation is continuing to improve the day-job or the things we do all the time. This notion has the rather unimaginative title “continuous improvement” as far as that goes I’m a six sigma green belt and yes I can put you in a coma with my little finger and a pressure point (that’s a lie I’ll probably put you in a coma if you listen to me talk about continuous improvement for more than 20 minutes).

Anyway I wanted to write about an exercise we did during the CI week session in “getting things done whilst doing the day job”. The lead bloke told the room of about 100 people “Your task is for all of you to touch this balloon” he then signed a balloon with a sharpie “as quickly as possible and return it to me.” he said indicating another gentleman who would time the proceedings “but I’m not going to give you time to do this. However I’m the customer and I expect it to be done and quickly.” People had questions, “How will you know we’ve all touched it?” asked one “I’ll just ask you, that’s how we know about most things isn’t it?”  then “Are we allowed to touch the balloon now?” and so on…

He then moved on to introducing various speakers and the point of the day.

Suddenly 2 minutes later the balloon was passed to me and I quickly passed it on to my table-mate on the left. The balloon had been touched by everyone in the room. How do we know? The man at the front asked everyone. Everyone said they had touched the balloon. The attempt took 1 minute and 57 seconds.

Someone somewhere decided to start the task again but way faster throwing the balloon around like crazy. I managed to throw the balloon on to another table (was pretty pleased with myself in spite of loathing such exercises unless I am running them).

Chuffed some middle aged civil servant ran up and presented the balloon. “Did everyone touch the balloon?” asked the front man… aggrieved a table to the front had been missed “No we didn’t touch the balloon, they self reported grandly” self auditing works. Failed attempt, the front man threw the balloon away. He promised us 10 minutes after lunch to “trial” some methods.

One bloke got up with a plan. An over engineered plan. We all had to get into several circles, the circles would then form something between a horseshoe and a Mandelbrot set the idea being he’d run around pushing the balloon into our hands. He also positioned the front man bloke somewhere near by.

The brave man got more and more irate as he tried to put us into position. I kind of wish I’d filmed it. I did take pictures but couldn’t possibly share them. Though it took well over 10 minutes to get us all into position they let him have an “everyone touched the balloon” score of 16 seconds. I think mostly they felt sorry for him.

Anyway I could use this story to talk about all sorts of stuff… about people, about process, about empowerment, about self audit or any number of mean things about civil servants. Instead I’m going to talk about urinals. The fixtures and fittings at Sheffield Town Hall were amazing. The toilets still had pull chains on high cisterns and the urinals had these glass shields to stop you peeing on your own shoes (splash back). There must have been an awkward point in the seventies or eighties where these things must have seemed very very old fashioned and the stroke of a pen would have had much of it ripped out. Maybe not. Either way the lesson in Continuous Improvement is to be able to move forward quickly, accept change but keep the good stuff.

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