Another exciting year is over, let’s take what it brought to our nixie tube endeavour!
I am going to compare things on a situation of year 2016.. So, at the end of 2016 I encouraged myself to hire another employee (Katka) to train her for glassworking and accompanying tasks. She managed to learn it in record time and over the year took on many other jobs, freeing my hands significantly. But the question “I’m finished, do you have some other work for me?” was driving me crazy the first months as it always came in the moment when I had full hands with my own work. The training phase was very exhausting – the time spent with training itself, securing material and tools so that the work is prepared every single day. At that time I had to be present every day in shop and I remember feeling really exhausted.
Things started changing in early summer when Katka was fully trained and started to organize her work herself. Together with Monika (which already needed almost zero attention from my side) and Karel they formed a great team, working almost independently on me. Since summer 2017, it is possible for me to travel out of shop or just take a couple of days vacation and ladies perfectly know what to do all that time. Now I know that the initial training is a finite matter and one day it will be over and will pay off 😉
There are now moments when I fully realize that we’ve done it – we revived the nixie tubes back from extinction.. For instance when I pass the lab door, hearing ladies talking about their work in tube-making specific language (stems, envelopes, glass to metal sealing, deionised water etc..), czech equivalents for these words are pure slang!
I have also very good feeling from the manufacturing procedures. This year we spent most of the time with production itself comparing to 2016 when I did a lot of R&D and was still developing tooling/machinery (e.g. pumping station). This allowed us to make things more efficient and become faster. We opened year with production of about 100 tubes per month, some months close to end of year having production over 200 tubes. This will probably become our limit in close future – now we dont have a single bottleneck in the production. Incresing the production would mean rebuilding all production from scratch – more people, more machines, more room etc..
What makes me especially happy and proud is the pumping station. It took so long to build (and so much learning of vacuum problematics), but now it is working like a charm. It achieves high levels of vacuum consistently and with perfect repeatability – I can recognize possible problems with tube materials just by looking at a pressure in specific times. It also needs almost no maintanance, just switching the gas bottles and oil in rotary vacuum pump.
Last issue in production?
All the manufacturing techniques have proven being reliable and needs no significant changes – I do just cosmetic touches to cut times or decrease rejection rates. Last real issue what made me busy this year was the mysterious leakage of our tubes described in review of 2016 and here. What seemed like a mystery on the beginning, turned out to have (fortunately) scientific background as usual. It is all about doing glass to metal sealing the right way – right temperatures, right times, right purity/composition of used materials. Since tube #2500 to most recent tube (about #3860) we have just one reported failure, thats 0.08% (average failure rate over all tubes manufactured is around 2.5%)! Some leakers still appear during manufacture – room for improving in 2017. Most important thing is that I developed a successful way how to identify them and reject them before they can be shipped to customer. Knowing the causes and having the solution, I can again sleep well!
I often receive feedback that 2.5% failure rate is already good enough, so why am I so obsessed with it so much? One reason is a bit illogical – I am a perfectionist and when I see a way how to improve things I just can’t live without doing so. Second reason is perfectly rational – replacing the tubes is expensive on both sides – we need to manufacture new tube, pack it and ship it to customer. Customer needs to contact us, describe the problem, wait for package and then physically replace the tube in clock. Another reason is that we cooperate on projects where tube replacement is either impossible (e.g. Wilson robot with hardwired tubes by Bad Dog Designs) or where perfectly flawless object is expected (e.g. $30.000 Nixie Machine II by Frank Buchwald for M.A.D. Gallery).
Colon tubes (separators)
The colon tubes have become a real problem – I planned to have them in production in 2016 already. With every problem solved another problem appears. Most of the problems relate to its small size – e.g. the wires which connects the dots are very close to anode and tend to glow together with the dots. This is probably last big problem which should be solved in following weeks.
I decided I will use soft glass in combination with dumet wire for making colon tubes. There were several reasons for this decision – I wanted to get experience with this combination as this is one of the most used glass to metal seals worldwide (light bulbs, diodes in glass package etc..). Also the soft glass tubing produced in small diameters have tighter tolerances than borosilicate tubing – this allows me to design the parts with better fit. Soft glass is much more demaning to right geometry of the seal and low stress in the glass, it is not so forgiving as boro – each mistake in cooling/heating rate is “rewarded” with big crack in glass!
Challenges of 2017
Apart from the issues I described above, we faced to other problems this year. On 3rd of October, I started taking new orders again (we were closed for new orders for several months – we received many orders on the end of 2016/beginning of 2017). We received over 70 orders in just few days, wow! To make sure there will be as little delays as possible with production, I ordered all material we needed for production (glass, tube bases, PCBs, parts for PCBs, clock stands, glass covers, wooden boxes and much more).
In short, I took the risk and spent all our cash, knowing that in following days will arrive payments (shipped Zen clock orders) from the payment gateway (the payments get agregated in two weeks cycles, we get them with around 3-4 weeks delay). However, the next payment from the payment gateway didn’t arrive – I contacted them and in following weeks we would find that there is a problem in a string of correspondent banks between the payment gateway and our bank. One of the banks made a change in routing and the other were not able to process the USD payments towards our bank. Quite complicated problem, it took lot of efforts and around 5 weeks before the payments started coming to our account again. 5 weeks without payments coming in, after I spent all our money.. This situation was unpleasant, but didn’t mean serious danger for us. I always count with all possible troubles and have a plan B 😉
The main reason for using payment gateway was to accept USD directly without currency conversion (customer pay in USD, we receive USD on our USD account). Recently I decided to switch back to Paypal because it is super comfortable and reliable method of accepting payments worldwide. The big disadvantage for us is that we are no longer able to receive USD directly. Customer pays in USD, Paypal converts it to CZK (local currency) with their poor conversion rate and when we need to pay suppliers in USD, we need to convert it back to USD. Paypal is very expensive for us, but very comfortable and safe for customers, so we will stick to it.
Zen Nixie Clock production
This makes me happy as well – we are making Zen clocks in steady pace of 2-5 units per week. There are no troubles with suppliers or manufacture (in 2016 we solved couple of issues), Zen clock has become our “bread”. Customer’s feedback is great, with just rare problems – mostly issues with connection of the clock to internet. There was not a single unsolved issue.
Technical things and engineering are one part of our nixie tube endeavour.. Another part is business planning, cashflow etc., and I often have feeling that the latter one is more challenging 😉
Our total revenue in 2017 was about $255.000, we started the year with $10.000 account balance and ended up with $45.000. I consider the difference of $35.000 profit we achieved in 2017. I already know how to spend the profit to grow and develop the business so that you receive better and better services!
Main goals for 2018
- Colon tubes (separators) – This will be now high priority task, many customers have been waiting for them for too long time! 😉
- Full Zen clock user guide + R|Z568M Nixie tube documentation/datasheet – The Zen clock user interface is quite intuitive and customers mostly set up the clock without issues. But some customers run the clock offline and need documentation, there are also situations when customer may need a troubleshooting guide, technical specs etc.. There are now also other makers using our tubes, a section with description how to drive and mount our tubes is essential.
- New website – together with a great local creative team, we are already working on new website. Many new stuff will be added – showcase of realised projects, detailed information about us and about our products. And I will need to persuade ladies to make a team photo for our new website – they dont want to be photographed 😉
I took some pictures of our facility, its growing 😉 Let’s start with the main room where the tubes are manufactured:
Following with chemical lab – used mainly for cleaning the parts prior to assembly.
Next room – Zen clock assembly, expedition, “office”
Machining workshop – here I build tools, jigs, fixtures and other stuff which we need for production. On some photos you can see also machines I am building for improving current production and for future projects (e.g. pneumatic press).
Electronic lab – here I develop electronics (clock boards or electronics for our machines).
Storage room – nothing much interesting, just loads of stuff – parts for tubes, clocks, vacuum systems, consumables and lot of electronic/pneumatic parts intended for future builds of bigger and more exciting projects 😉
It seems that we are out of all main business issues a start-up can face to – we’ve managed the nixie tube technology and we are in black numbers.
I’ve learned that the key thing is persistence – when something is not working as supposed, I keep trying and after eliminating several dead-ends, I usually manage to break the problem. Simple.
Year 2018 will be mainly about settling things down. We definitely need to grow our team, I am just not sure which way – administrative assistant would come handy (to save my time for R&D and communication), but also another engineer is needed. I will probably need to choose just one as we are not big enough in revenue to cover the costs. We also dont have more room for another office, thats another pain. But all this will be solved this year.
Thank you for reading this long post, I hope you enjoyed it. I also thank you all for following us and supporting whole year 2017 – keep in touch!
Special thanks to all our customers – thank you for choosing us and for your patience while waiting for your clock/tubes being manufactured! Thanks to you, I am allowed to make my mad dream true – build a tube making factory in 21st century!