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The Digital Factory Podcast #6: The Evolving Business of Hardware with Eric Klein

Formlabs is proud to support The Digital Factory podcast, part of our ongoing series on digital manufacturing. In this series, hosted by Jon Bruner, we’ll explore the future of the factory floor through conversations with experts who are changing the way things are made.

In episode 6, we sit down with Eric Klein, partner at Lemnos, a leading early stage hardware venture fund. Klein and his partners provide direct investment and intensive coaching for hardware entrepreneurs in areas like robotics, aerospace, and connected devices.

Play the full podcast below to hear about:

  • The challenges of hiring for early stage hardware startups
  • How more accessible electronics and hardware-as-a-service models are changing the hardware business
  • How the hardware renaissance is critically different from the maker movement

The Challenges of Early Stage Hardware

In this episode, we take a look at what Eric Klein has learned from teaching, supporting, and collaborating with a wide variety of hardware startups involved in robotics, aerospace, connected devices, and more.

On the Increasing Accessibility of Robotics

“A whole bunch of technologies around actuation and sensors have really unlocked robotics. Whereas a system including a robotic arm, some actuation, and some movement used to be hundreds of thousands of dollars, now we can build those robots for 20, 30, 50, 60 thousand dollars. It changes the economics of the underlying businesses that they can put robots in.”

On Making Your Hardware Company’s First 10 Hires

“I always think that the biggest challenge of starting a hardware company is that you're building a complex systems company. You have to hire so many diverse people to get to market. And that may be the biggest challenge. It's not technology, it's not necessarily capital, dollars, it's the diversity of people that you need to bring together as a team to execute these complex systems.”

You have to hire so many diverse people to get to market. And that may be the biggest challenge.

On the Hardware Renaissance vs. The Maker Movement

“It's really easy to try to smear this word ‘maker’ across the entirety of the hardware renaissance. The challenge in it is that inside of the hardware renaissance, we have multiple springs of innovation, or multiple revolutions going on.”

“Inside of STEM, there are so many great things where we're teaching an entire generation to take things apart and put things together, and to be comfortable with the physical world as much as they are with the digital world. And then we have this whole great movement, which I think sometimes encompasses the word maker more than any other: this ability, because of the accessibility of the entire hardware development chain, we're seeing this just wealth of new, simpler consumer products. Singular products that are wonderful products. I love buying them.”

“And then, at the top end, that same revolution has opened up massive opportunities for large, complex systems to be built at the edge of technology, where the technology wasn't even available to us five years ago. But those complex systems require that diversity of hiring and that larger capital pool. If they do fit into the word ‘make,’ they're at the very, very high end, but it's almost its own special area.”

“Each of them is worthy of attention and innovation. But I struggle to put them under the same moniker because they really are very different. They feed each other, they have touch points, but I don't know that it's necessarily a continuum. It's more a very discrete step function.”

The hardware renaissance and the maker movement feed each other, they have touch points, but I don't know that it's necessarily a continuum.

On a New Service Model for Enterprise Hardware

“Once you get an iPhone, or you get your Pixel 2, that's the phone you’ve got. It's sort of locked down. You're not opening it up and changing anything. But in the enterprise segment, rather than you buying a physical object and that's the object forever, what you're buying is a service provided by the products. So this box that you put on your factory line that is watching a motor or watching a process and streaming a bunch of data back, that customer is paying for the data that the box is providing.”

Tools: The iPad and Apple Pencil

“We have a lot of improvement still to do in terms of being able to parse through those notes, but if you look at things like One Note and Evernote, when married with a pen and a digital system, it's the first time where I've started to travel on trips and say, ‘all right, I would rather have my digital form of capture than my paper form.’ I don't think we're quite there yet.

I still carry a small notebook and a pen, it's like the ‘break glass in emergency,’ when I'm frustrated when I've hit the edge of what digital can do. But I think we're tantalizingly close to really being able to get that feeling, to get that sense of just rapid capture.”

More Lessons from Digital Manufacturing Innovators

Stay tuned for the next episode of the podcast! In the meantime, visit The Digital Factory for an archive of talks, podcasts, and more from experts at the forefront of digital manufacturing.

Visit The Digital Factory

The Digital Factory Podcast is hosted by Jon Bruner, produced by Alyce Currier, soundtracked by Manuel Odendahl, and edited by Inky Stainsworth.