WORKING IN A CASTLE
“The factory is located in a castle with 1 m thick walls. We have roughly 250 square metres of space inside. It’s in a small village, and there’s no budget to do anything with it – in a bigger city, it would be an art gallery or something like that. They’re just happy there’s a company in there paying the rent. I like it, but it’s impractical on a few levels. It’s humid; it’s cold, there’s no loading or unloading bays. But it’s the closest place to my home, and it’s the lowest rent around, so it was a sound business decision.
“When I started, I spent two or three years gathering information and trying to set up the highest-quality manufacturing possible – purity of materials, purity of the gas in the tubes, the best equipment, so we can produce the best Nixie tubes ever. There were problems at first, of course. The first batch of maybe around 50 Nixie tubes started to fail after around a year, so we had to take them back from customers, analyse the problem, find the solution, and prevent problems in the future.
“Now we have roughly a 4% fail rate, and we’re constantly bringing that down. When you read the theory, it sounds simple, but the reality is that it’s much more difficult than it first looks. We work constantly on quality inspections, on the things that we make and on the materials that we get from suppliers.
“If we were a bigger company with 20 engineers, then setting up the roles for this would be easy, but we’re just three people in production. It’s quite a challenge to set up the processes so that they run consistently.
“We only make one type of Nixie tube, plus a separator for use in clocks – it lights up like a colon to separate hours, minutes, and seconds. I’ve started working on a slightly smaller type of tube that we’ll be able to offer at a lower price to the customer.
“Our customers are interested in technology – some people buy paintings for their wall; our customers buy a technical piece of art. I think they appreciate the fact that someone is keeping old technology alive and they want to support us.
“We make everything by hand, which sounds cool, but it’s partly because we didn’t have the machines to do things for us, in particular, the glass-work. In 2019 there are no companies making machine tools for making Nixie tubes, so we’ve been looking for old machine tools in archives of Nixie tube manufacturers. Most of these machines went to scrap, but they’re rare anyway because only a few of them were ever sold. With the smaller tube, I’ve managed to find a machine to help me produce this new tube. I only found the contact to get in touch with the person who had this machine because I was already producing Nixies by hand, and the community helped me find this man who had a machine who sold it to me because he wanted to see it in operation, rather than gathering dust. Thanks to the first generation of our Nixie tubes, I’ll be able to produce the second generation.”