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Introducing North Coast Synthesis Ltd.

Wed 11 Jan 2017 by mskala Tags used: , , ,

The synthesizer project has reached an important milestone: my business is now incorporated, under the name North Coast Synthesis Ltd. The Web site will be at northcoastsynthesis.com, which currently just redirects to a password-locked Shopify storefront, but will become public and have some real content in the near future. Watch this space, that site, or my Twitter account, for further updates as they happen.

It took a lot longer to reach this point than I'd intended, and there are still plenty of hurdles ahead and to the side. Getting confirmation on the name search was the biggest sticking point for quite a while - because I didn't want to do things like register domain names and set up the Internet presence until I was sure I had rights to the legal name. This one was my first choice. I didn't expect any trouble actually getting it, for instance with stuff like conflicting trademarks. It did pass the Google Test, which is the poor man's NUANS, as well as an actual NUANS pre-search, but I wanted to get it all in writing and be sure before making any announcements.

The next critical-path step is GST/HST registration, for which the paperwork has been submitted but the government takes a while to process it. I want to get that in place before I incur too many serious expenses; the idea is that for things that are "inputs" to my business, the business either doesn't have to pay sales tax, or can pay sales tax and get it reimbursed by the government, because ultimately only end users are supposed to pay sales tax. For the shopping I've already done on behalf of the business, I can probably still get the GST/HST credit on most if not all of it, but it's a little more complicated.

Right now the thing on top of my plate is the laser printer. I have a Samsung ML4050-ND printer dating from 2008. Quite a nice machine when it was new, and I'd been hoping to get several more years of use out of it. It sat in storage in Winnipeg for two and a half years while I was in Denmark, and I just got it back in early December. At that time it seemed to be working fine. But a few days ago it balked at printing a large document. I'm not sure I'd printed any more than one or two pages long since unpacking it from storage. And then it went rapidly downhill, with things that had formerly worked not working anymore, to the point that it could not be used at all.

Without going into massive detail on my debugging process, I'll say that my current best guess is electrolytic capacitors on the power supply board have gone bad due to age and maybe temperature shock. This is not a guess I'm happy to make, because if that really is the problem, the only way to know is to disassemble the printer pretty much completely to get at the power supply board (which is in the least-accessible possible location inside the printer), look at the caps to see if they're visibly bad, but they might well be bad in a way that isn't visible, then desolder them (all of then, if it's not visually obvious which ones are bad), buy compatible replacements, solder those in, put the whole thing back together, and see if it works. If after that process it does work, great. But if I make even one small mistake along the way, or if that wasn't a correct diagnosis of the problem to begin with, then I can end up with a printer that still has at least the original problem, possibly also a new problem, very little learned, and I won't discover this until after I complete the entire operation.

Back in 2012 I did a similar repair on an LCD monitor. That time, I was lucky: I'd correctly guessed what the problem was in the first place, and I didn't make any serious mistakes along the way, and the monitor came up perfectly on the first try after I put it back together and plugged it in. I hope it goes equally smoothly this time... but a laser printer is a much more complicated machine than an LCD monitor and there's a lot more that can go wrong when taking one apart and putting it back together.

Hanging over the whole thing is that the price of the time and parts to do the repair even if successful, is a significant fraction of the price of just buying an entire new printer. If I were paying someone else to do this, or putting the price on my own skills and time that I would charge to someone who hired me to do it, then it simply wouldn't make economic sense. But having to shop for a new printer and dispose of the dead one would also cost me time for which nobody will pay me, and at this point it still seems like worth making the try.

And it doesn't help that many of my tools are still in Sweden at this point.

So I searched the Net until I found a copy of the service manual that I could get without giving my credit card number to shady characters, and I disassembled the printer completely (it is now in pieces all over my workspace) and extracted the power supply board. It was not obvious just by looking at the capacitors that any of them were bad. But I have desoldered them all, and put in an order to Mouser for replacements, about $35 worth. We shall see.

Sourcing parts is shaping up to be a headache. I bought some parts recently from Digi-Key and was put off, among other things, by their giving me the third degree over what I was going to do with the parts. They did that to me when I was in Denmark, too, but I'd hoped being in Canada would make it easier. They claim that they need to ask a lot of questions that are really none of their business, in order to obey US export laws. Their competitors have to obey those same laws and do not ask such questions.

I'd been hoping to do most of my sourcing from Newark, who are the branch serving Canada of the far-flung Element14 empire that also includes Farnell in the UK. I sat down a week ago with a list of parts I wanted for prototypes, and the Newark and Digi-Key Web sites in two browser tabs, and I searched each part in both and added it to the cart in whichever tab made more sense, either on price or quality or having the part in stock at all. And at the end of it I found more than two thirds of my shopping list was in the Newark cart, and it was basically only making sense to buy from Digi-Key for the parts Newark didn't stock. So, win for Newark, right?

But here's the thing: the parts I ordered from Digi-Key shipped on time and I have them here right now. With Newark, I got an email the next day (I'd placed my order with the Web site at 8pm) saying the order was "on hold" and I should send them the phone number of my credit card company, and my own phone number, within 48 hours or it would be cancelled. So I sent them that. And then I heard nothing. The order is still, a week later, listed on their Web site as having the status of "on hold," with mouseover text explaining that that means "The order is on hold" and no other explanation in their helpmfiles. I had no response from multiple queries to their email and Web site support services. They put a pre-authorization on my credit card when I placed the order for an amount that was close but not equal to the price of the goods without shipping or tax. That pre-authorization has now expired; they have not actually charged anything to my card. I complained on Twitter today and got a response from their social media people asking me to direct-message them my order number, which I did, and they said they'd have the sales team contact me. So far, that has not happened - but it's only been a few hours, so maybe they will do something tomorrow. All in all, this does not inspire confidence that I will ever get this order or should place further orders.

And that's why customer service matters, kids. This order is worth about $1000, which is more than a trivial amount already, but it's not about this order. This order was also specifically intended to evaluate Newark as possibly being the main parts supplier for North Coast. If they have a damn good answer for what went wrong this time and why it won't happen next time, I might still choose them for that role, because Digi-Key's nonsense is really annoying too... but tens of thousands of dollars of per year of potential business between Newark and North Coast hang in the balance right now. If they think they can afford to ignore my email, well, okay then.

Mouser is also on the list of possibilities. I was pleased the one time I bought something from them while I lived in Denmark. They do have the disadvantage that they ship from the USA, unlike the other two who have presence of their own in Canada, relieving my border-crossing-related responsibilities. Mouser's Web site also has some problems (most notably with data quality in their parametric search), but customer service matters, see above. So I put in my order for the laser printer replacement capacitors with Mouser this evening, and we'll see what happens.

Aluminum front panels are likely to be a headache. I bought some prototypes from Front Panel Express, in I think Seattle, and they're beautiful; but after paying the exchange rate, the shipping, and UPS's annoying fee for collecting the GST (which I probably cannot get rebated even if I can get a rebate for the smaller amount of the GST itself), the Front Panel Express panels come to about $50 each, and that's simply too much for me to be able to make a profit reselling them.

My next step on panels is to try to make some more friends in Shenzhen and get a Chinese factory to custom-manufacture panels for me. I spent some time preparing mechanical drawings of the panels, but I was waiting for my company name before actually contacting factories because having a professional-looking page on AliBaba with a company name on it is how the game is played. (This is more than a little like Internet dating.) So it's on my agenda for tomorrow, now that I do have the company name, to start sending out quote requests.

While I was holding off on contacting Chinese factories myself, one of them whose page I had been looking at on AliBaba took the step of contacting me to ask if they could do anything for me - because the system tells them when logged-in users view their page, and I'd spent probably a lot more time reading their information than most visitors do. So with the warning that it was preliminary and I hadn't been planning to start seeking quotes yet, "but since you ask..." I sent them my mechanical drawing for the panel design I thought would be most difficult. I asked, in paraphrase, "Can you manufacture this? I realize the colour gradients may be a problem, so if you can't do those, what can you do instead that will look nice?" and they said, "Sorry, we can't do colour gradients, but if you send us another design without those, we'll tell you whether we can do that one." That's not exactly the form of answer I'd hoped for, because the point of the exercise from my point of view was for them to tell me what they could do, and they did not. Considering the effort it costs to prepare a design for a quote request, I don't want to play guessing games over what they can and can't make. But I'll keep them on the list to contact again later, especially if colour gradients prove to be prohibitive for a lot of other places too. There are several other factories on my list, so I'll see what the others say.

The tricky part of the panels is the printing. The mechanical requirements for my panels are easy to meet even with earlier-generation NC machine tools; the least-capable Chinese machine shops are already advertising better tolerances than what I need. But I want them to be printed at a level of quality that is obviously and visibly better than the low standards of many other Eurorack manufacturers, and not many machine shops as such are set up to do that. To do it all under one roof, a factory basically has to be specialized for front panels. Even if I were to split it into two separate tasks for two contractors, "You, the machine shop, manufacture this metal chunk, then ship it to the screen printing plant, and then you other lot print on it," which is a done thing in this business, it remains that outfits specializing in silkscreening are often set up to do it on stuff like T-shirts. Two or three millimetres of misalignment are acceptable on a T-shirt. The dial markings around a control knob on an electronic front panel have much tighter tolerance. And you need different ink for printing on solid aluminum compared to T-shirts, and maybe you have to bake it on at a temperature that would destroy T-shirts, so the T-shirt printers may not even have ovens that go that high, and so on. There are other technologies besides silkscreen - too many for me to explore on my own, which is one reason I'd really like factories to make offers to me on what they can do instead of it going in the other direction.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

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