One year in production hell

, by
Dominik Schmalzried, Patrick Schmalzried

When we launched our Kickstarter back in 2019 we were not quite sure what to expect. The Zaunkoenig M1K not only was the most spartanic gaming mouse ever made, it also was not exactly cheap. What if only ten people backed our Kickstarter? Luckily that fear quickly evaporated when we reached our Kickstarter funding goal of $10,000 in just two minutes. Our Kickstarter barely had started and our goal already had shifted from «proving demand for the M1K» to «actually making hundreds of M1Ks». This was the start of our very own production hell.

Not many people understand this, but there is a stark difference between making prototypes and achieving volume production. Making prototypes is easy. Making hundreds or thousands of that prototype is not just twice as hard. It is what feels like a hundred times as hard. It is so hard, that it feels like hell. The term «prototype hell» is not a thing; «production hell» is. We learned this the hard way. For most of 2020 you could not buy the M1K in a regular webshop. The batches we offered once per month in the second half of 2020 were sold out in minutes. We realized how bad the situation had gotten when famous StarCraft commentator Artosis reached out to us, asking whether he please could buy an M1K outside of our monthly batches, because as a father of four having to get up at three in the morning to maybe be first in line to buy an M1K just did not agree with his schedule.

Normal production hell is already bad enough. Carbon fiber production hell however is even worse. When normal production hell feels like wearing a thick down jacket on the hottest day of the year, carbon fiber production hell is wearing a thick down jacket on the hottest day of the year, in a sauna. Carbon fiber is notoriously hard to produce. The list of production problems that are unique to only carbon fiber production is substantial. There are hundreds of things that can go wrong with carbon fiber production and if you are making enough carbon fiber parts, as per Murphy’s law, you will run into all of them.

What makes matters worse is that many of these problems even today are very poorly understood. Carbon fiber is a very modern material after all, being just a few decades old. Injection molding of normal plastic parts is over one hundred years old, for comparison.

Yet if saving weight is of paramount importance, the mantra pretty much has to be «carbon fiber or bust». Plastic gaming mice? Magnesium alloy gaming mice? Those are not shortcuts. They are the wrong way. When every gram counts, only carbon fiber is good enough.

After having spent 2020 learning the endless list of things that can go wrong with carbon fiber production, our rate of production improved significantly at the end of November. We were even able to offer the M1K in stock for roughly four weeks straight. But then, just a few days before Christmas, our CNC machine decided to have a meltdown. The poor thing had milled out the carbon fiber buttons on hundreds of M1Ks and decided it was time to take a vacation. Milling carbon fiber parts is not exactly easy-going, so we guess we can be happy it lasted this long. Our Christmas thus was spent fixing our CNC machine. (Try getting replacement parts on Christmas Eve, by the way.)

One of our goals for 2021 is to be in stock for more than four weeks straight. However we are almost certain new production problems will show up. When they do we cannot stop and have to work through them until eventually we have seen it all. Or as Winston Churchill put it: «When going through hell, keep going.»