Meet the Maker: Brian Lough

By Andrew Gregory. Posted

If you’re running a business, a good first step is figuring out what people might want to buy. That’s what most people will tell you, anyway. For most makers though, the process starts with fixing an itch of your own. That’s what led Brian Lough to put his first creation up on Tindie a little over a year ago.

Since then he’s added more gadgets to his stable, scaled up, and shared knowledge with makers all over the place. We chatted with him to find out more about the world of open-source electronics.

“I was always interested in the idea of making a PCB, but I put it off for a while. And then I saw a couple of other makers, like Unexpected Maker showed it a few times on his channel – I thought that it looked like something I could do. I made it a goal a few years ago to make a PCB and see how it goes.

“Similar to software or whatever, when I’m learning a new language I prefer to have a project in mind rather than just go ‘OK, I’m going to learn Python because I want to learn Python’. It would be more, ‘I’m going to do something on the Raspberry Pi because that uses Python’.

“If there’s a practical thing that’s going to come out at the end of it, I’m more encouraged to keep at it and keep learning. If it’s a useless project or has no end goal, I struggle with motivation.

“I had this minor bugbear for years...I had OctoPrint set up on a Raspberry Pi controlling my 3D printer. So I left my Raspberry Pi on all the time; I didn’t want to be booting it up and down every time I wanted to print something. But I was turning the printer off in between prints, and the Raspberry Pi is connected to the printer via USB. I had, and still do have, a cheap Chinese printer...it takes the power from the Raspberry Pi USB and powers the screen board and stuff. So even though the printer was off, the screen was staying on. It’s quite a bright LCD screen, so it was quite frustrating.

“This is a common problem; loads of people have it. What some people do is they cut their USB cable; they peel back the shield, and cut the 5 V wire inside the cable.

Brian’s builds are electronically simple, but they have real- world uses

THE FIRST PROJECT

“I was thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a solution for this that didn’t require you to cut open a cable?’ This would be a nice first PCB design because it’s super-simple: there are two components, all I have to do is connect three of the four wires between those two components, and that would be it. I had a practical use case, so I said OK, I’ll make that.

“[PCB fabricating service] JLCPCB had this thing where you could panellise your board for free, so once it fit within 10 by 10 cm, you could have rows and columns of the same PCB design. I think I ended up ordering about 200 PCBs for what I call the Power BLough-R. I got two hundred of these Power BLough- Rs and thought this is an absolute lifetime supply of these; I will never need to order any of these again. I bought enough parts for ten of them, and thought, this will do me for months, even if I decide to sell them. That ended up being a lot more popular than I thought!

The Power BLough-R is even in a retail shop in the USA

“I like to design things that solve problems that I have, because I feel like if I have problems with it, then surely other people have problems with it too. A lot of people come to me with some problem in a far-off field saying that there would be good money to be made in that, but I find that really hard to develop anything for, because I don’t experience the problem myself, so I can’t have empathy with other people’s problems; I don’t fully understand the issues they’re having, and I would have to conduct a lot of interviews and things like that. But if I’m solving a problem I’m having myself, I understand immediately what the crux of the issue is and how to make it better. If you solve the problem in a way that makes it significantly better for me, maybe it’ll make it significantly better for another person.

“I have a full-time job, a 40-hour a week job in software development. On top of that, I can easily put in eight hours, ten hours a week making hardware. Sometimes you’d have a really busy week, sometimes a quiet week. When I started out, I used to pack pretty much on demand; I would go get the pack and put all the parts in it, but I found that was really inefficient from a time point of view.

“If you bought something off me and I had to get down all the boxes, put one kit together and then put everything away, it was quite inefficient. Often times on a Saturday, my wife and I would just bag up kits ahead of time. “I’ve tried really hard to reduce the amount of time it takes me to pack orders to an absolute minimum. I was writing the address by hand, and I have terrible handwriting, so that’s a big problem. If I write badly, then it doesn’t get to you!

“I’ve optimised now though; where it was taking me a couple of minutes to print out a label, it now takes me seconds. If you’ve made an order with me, I could have it processed and ready to go out in two minutes now.

“It takes the pressure off you too – I found that whatever was on my plate, when someone is giving you money for something, it automatically becomes top of the list, whatever else you’re doing. Context switching is a bit of a problem too – five evenings a week, you’ve packed one thing, and maybe the process of packing only took you five minutes, but the cleaning up afterwards and all that stuff... it’s just so inefficient at times.

MAKING FOR MAKERS

“Sometimes it can be really busy. The matrix shields recently I’ve been selling a lot of. They’re the display that normally would make up large displays in a soccer stadium or whatever. You can buy individual panels of them, and you can control them with Arduinos.

“They’re really nice displays. They’re not particularly difficult to connect an Arduino to, or an ESP32, but the matrix shield makes it a lot easier, because you just drop the shield into one of the ports, use the ribbon cable that comes with the display to connect to the other one – that looks after power because it has a barrel jack on it.

Brian’s take on the classic seven- segment display

“It tidies things up, makes it less prone to error, it’s a bit neater as well. They’ve sold really well over the summer. There are a couple of people in the States on Twitter who have been playing around with these pixel purses: Les Pounder took one apart in the magazine, Emily Velasco is one of the two people I was talking about, and Geek Mom Projects is the other one. When people ask Emily what’s controlling her project, she tells people she’s using my board, and links to it. That has given me a boost.

“I’m happy enough for it to be a side project. At the moment it funds the other stuff I do; it’s nice to not have to worry about the money you’re spending on electronics for projects.

“Tindie’s great – I think because it’s targeted at makers. I think, in general, makers are a pretty good community and pretty friendly. As I mentioned with Emily, she seems to be happy to tell people about it any time – people go ‘Hey, what are you using to make it run?’ She could just say ‘Oh, it’s an ESP32’, but she does go out of her way to link to the board and things like that. People, if they get the board, seem happy to talk about it on Twitter. If they develop code for it, they always seem to be happy to share it back, and let me use it to show off the board’s features. Some of the coolest things that come out of it are not written by me, but by other people. It’s very nice. I haven’t had any negative experiences in selling to anybody at the moment. A couple of times things have gone missing in the post, but people have always been happy to take a refund, or for me to send it again. I haven’t had any negative issues. Let’s hope that continues for the next year as well.”

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