Designed in Boston — Taking our father/son invention from prototype to product, all with local professionals

With our Kickstarter campaign underway, this is part 2 of the rewarding experience making Brick Sound Kit together with my 8 year old son. This update shares how we very fortunately wound up working with two amazing teams right here in Boston to bring my son Chase’s idea and our prototype into something real!

Growing up and going to college in the area, I had no idea there was such incredibly capable firms right in Boston able to help you build such innovative technology at this level. Like many, especially with my own personal stint in the Bay Area, I had come to expect most device design and invention happened elsewhere.

This story chronicles our journey getting Brick Sound Kit designed with two talented firms. If you’re intrigued by technology and devices, or a maker yourself and wonder how to go from prototype to production, this should help.

Before or while you read, you may want to listen to our amazing team talk about their experience working with Chase on Brick Sound Kit.

Getting serious about Brick Sound Kit

Some of our close friends were the first to see the Brick Sound Kit in action. Within minutes they commanded me to “drop everything and get this made.” It was more than enough to get me thinking about next steps.

The prototyping stage was so fun and rewarding. What Chase and I achieved by bringing his idea to life was a huge milestone in itself. We did pause at each iteration, something I’ve learned is very important especially when collaborating with a child. As adults, we don’t tend to observe the smaller moves, but in this case, it was quality time to acknowledge our mutual accomplishments.

I would go on to show the prototype and videos of Chase demoing it to more friends. Each time, they were in awe and gave me, in their own way, a nudge to keep going. The problem was, I had no idea how to take this cool, relatively costly prototype and make it into something cheaper, smaller and in some form where it could be easily reproduced.

I began searching online, but unlike the code and support I found so easy, there was no clear direction or path to go. Digging a little deeper, I discovered a term that would unlock the next step. “PCB”, which stands for Pressed Circuit Board, came to represent the way to move forward.

The makings of our first Pressed Circuit Board (PCB) designed in March by the BU EDF

Getting a PCB designed was the next step. This would convert the multiple components and Arduino-based Trinket Pro used in the final prototype into one circuit board. The layout of the circuit board would reflect positioning of the battery and buttons, and also define the minimum size of the device itself.

The Boston University Electronics Design Facility

I began searching for firms that could do PCB design. Through SeeedStudio, our supplier for many components in the original prototype, I found a list of PCB design firms — and was delighted to see many in Cambridge, MA, virtually in our backyard.

However, many firms presented us with the option of costly design which would be outsourced. Something about this didn’t match up well with Chase and my experience so far. Understanding how much he had learned, I felt compelled to find a way so have the PCB design done as locally as possible, and hopefully in a way Chase could observe and learn from.

Although I had searched online before, there was something about the results in late December that brought the BU EDF (Electronics Design Facility) to our attention. I was able to line up a call with BU EDF Director Eric Hazen. I explained what we had done, Chase and I together, to that point. Eric was interested.

Leading a team of professionals and students, Eric explained that the kind of technology Brick Sound Kit used was something many in his lab were looking to do more with. As a proud alumni of Boston University (COM ‘99), I thought it would be a great opportunity to introduce my son to my college while also bringing to new technology to the school.

Chase’s first visit to BU was special

It was the best move. Eric welcomed Chase in right away. We had a special day during his February vacation where Eric gave Chase a tour and even did a special soldering class right in the lab. It was the impression of a lifetime for Chase.

Things got even better as Eric delegated an amazing team led by Zachary Lasiuk and Dan Gastler. They applied tremendous skills and ingenuity to the project. Zach designed the first pass at the board, assisted by Eric, which achieved incredible performance while replicating the exact functionality of our prototype. During this process Zach began sourcing the components, a key step that projects the cost of fabricating and assembling the board at volume.

The second phase was conducted in parallel with CLEAR Design Lab, which I’ll write more about in a bit. Working in concert with CLEAR, Zach and Dan incorporated user and mechanical design feedback. The 2nd board nailed the placement of all components, adding new features like the Brick Sound Kit’s trademark program-ability, and further refined the device’s firmware.

Chase with Dan Gastler and Zachary Lasiuk, engineers at BU EDF

All the while, Chase was involved, giving feedback, asking questions and being very much a part of the process. What BU EDF did for us was remarkable and it really made our transition from prototype to production-ready a dream. Anyone seeking to advance their maker prototype to something more needs to align with a firm like BU EDF. It’s the only way to keep a personal touch on your project while benefiting from the skill needed to convert your project into some real.

CLEAR Design Lab

The second Chase suggested this invention be attached to LEGOs we had a huge challenge. If we were to actually build this thing, at some point it would need to be able to connect to LEGO’s signature studs.

As shown in my previous update, our final homegrown prototype was actually encased in LEGOs. Unfortunately, this was not even close to what our final product had to look like.

We were introduced to Kat Ely, co-owner of CLEAR Design Lab, by one of the first PCB design firms we talked to. Right away, in Kat, we found someone who got and was excited in what we set out to do. Not only was she instantly in tune with what we wanted the device to do, she welcomed all of Chase’s ideas, drawings and concepts.

This was another relief for me, as I knew Chase and the project would benefit from his continued involvement at this detailed level. I knew we established a great relationship with Kat from the start.

Soon, though, we began realizing how lucky — once again — we were. At every turn, Kat and her team were incrementally improving the design. From their initial concepts, based on Chase’s ideas, all the way through to their first 3D-print, Brick Sound Kit was coming to life in amazing ways.

Kat Ely and her team at CLEAR Design Lab meeting Chase early in our project

We enjoyed an incredible iterative process where I would be emailed latest designs and renderings. Then, after I signed off from work, I would call Chase into my office or print the renderings and bring them to his room. In most cases, he would provide remarkably constructive feedback on the variations. Kat would accept these notes and turn around revisions that nailed Chase’s feedback.

If I had to pick one breakthrough concept from Kat’s team it would be the realization that Brick Sound Kit could work as a toy by itself. Although it is equipped to easily snap to LEGOs on the top or bottom, the sleek spaceship design means you don’t have to wait to build to begin playing.

But when coupled to LEGOs, MegaBloks and other bricks, the spaceship design also serves as a durable “grip” that allows you to actually play with your creation rather than just put it on the shelf. This is incredible innovation.

A few months in, CLEAR Design Lab and BU EDF started working in parallel. The updated circuit board needed to incorporate anchor points so it could be mounted to the enclosure. Inversely, the enclosure design needed to flawlessly incorporate the placement of Brick Sound Kit’s LEDs, light up rear buttons, AAA battery and programming port.

A break-apart rendering showing all of our components coming together

All in all, selecting a design firm will probably take you longer than choosing your electronics team. The key here is doing what you can to ensure both sides will be able to work together at some point. We couldn’t ask for more from CLEAR Design Lab. What they did to transform the design and quality of our product is amazing. And what they’ve done to help us position and realize the value of Brick Sound Kit is beyond measure.

A final rendering of what Brick Sound Kit would actually look like

Ready for production and conclusion

The work these two firms did for us couldn’t be more appreciated. All of you that will soon enjoy Brick Sound Kit will benefit from the durability, performance and fun that BU EDF and CLEAR Design Lab helped craft into our product.

I love the fact that we were able to keep product development and design of Brick Sound Kit so local, right here in Boston, giving Chase and I a front row seat to the amazing process and skill demonstrated by Zach, Dan, Eric, Kat and her team.

For those interested in talking with Zach and Kat, we’ve created a special Kickstarter Reward called “Ultimate Explorer” which includes consultation time and a very special Brick Sound Kit autographed by Chase and team!

If you have any questions on Brick Sound Kit’s capabilities, or are looking to embark on a project with someone, please reach us on Facebook, Twitter, or using the campaign comments.

Thank you for supporting Brick Sound Kit!