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My adventure in trying to reproduce thumbsticks
Topic Started: Jun 29 2015, 12:48 AM (667 Views)
danny_galaga
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So, back in 2013 i had a bit of extra cash and decided to finally see if I could get a factory to reproduce the N64 thumbsticks. That is, the three main moving parts that cop most of the wear. I located a factory in China that specialised in reverse engineering, and they had an office in Hong Kong. My man in Hong Kong went to uni in Melbourne and his English was impeccable. Which no doubt was why he was their man for western customers. Basically it has all come to nought after all this time and I figured it was worth reporting here so that if someone else ever wants to have a go, they can avoid certain pitfalls. Not sure how to proceed to tell the tale but will list some basic events in chronological order. This blog is really about underlining the demise of this project so that I can put it to rest in my mind and move on. It's something I had to at least try or I'd always wonder 'what if?'.

I first started thinking about doing this over five years ago when I bought a controller on ebay. And golly willakers if it wasn't essentially NIB! I thought that could be a good basis for reverse engineering.

Firstly, there were some communication issues. I suspect not between me and my HK guy, but between him and Shenzhen. They mostly speak Cantonese in HK and Mandarin in the rest of China. Chinese people I know say it's essentially the same language, but in the same way someone from Scotland is speaking English. In other words, gosh darn hard to get around the accent and word variation. Eg, in Scottish 'Ye' is 'you', 'cauld' is 'cold' and 'fae' is 'from'. So I think there were some problems there.

If you are reproducing plastic components one of the first things they'll want to know is what type of plastic. Even before I had contacted them I anticipated this and that it would probably be a destructive method. Eg, flame test. So I sent two sets of samples. I sent a really worn out set for them to do materials testing with, and the 'brand new' parts to reverse engineer some drawings off. To make sure it was obvious which was which, I chopped up the worn out parts and said so in the accompanying package. Guess which set they destroyed?! So after spending aot of money getting no where, I don't even have a complete NIB controller anymore to console myself with!

Lesson? Send the expendable samples first. DONT send anything else until they say they've done the materials testing. I will trawl through my emails and find the materials that they are made of a bit later so that it won't be necessary again in this specific instance.

Another lesson learnt is that you have to keep on top of it, and not get disheartened and let things slide. Some of the miscommunication was surely because we had a huge pile of emails to each other after a year.

I have received over that time 3 sets of samples.

Mk1. This we knew would not have much chance of being correct. Once they make the moulds (carved from stainless steel. That alone takes a MONTH!) they do a sample run so that the customer can give them feedback on what to adjust. Injection moulding happens at a fairly high temperature and thus the mould has to have allowances for shrinkage. Seems to me to be a fine art. So the Mk 1 samples had almost nothing right about them. The stick wouldn't fit in the yoke slots, the gears wouldn't mesh. I was freaked how way off it was and wondered if they could do something this fine in the first place. I sent them my recommendations for adjustments and they adjusted the moulds.

Mk2. The gears were still pretty crap. But the slot sizes and the stick itself was very close. Probably good enough to keep as is since I understood that they could only get tolerances so close. Sent them some videos of the original parts and the reproduction parts in action so they could better understand how they work together (as far as I know, they don't know what these parts do specifically).

Mk3. Gears were MUCH better! But inexplicably, the stick reverted to the Mk1 dimensions! :wacko: WTF? This is where I realised I needed to revise my methods of communication, because my man in HK denied having been told to keep the stick like the Mk2 version. The other little niggle was that games wouldn't stay centred. This is when I decided to send a set of the best bits (Mk2 stick and Mk3 gears) to Sanni to see what he thought. His feedback was most valuable and we agreed that the axles were slightly out of round and that was probably causing the drifting.

Now, some months later I have lost all steam and am defeated. I had to pay a 50% deposit on the moulds and I am writing that cost off as experience. I suspect it will never be quite right. I have too many other projects going at the moment (not manufacturing, just personal ones) and I've spread myself thin.

I've learnt some things and wouldn't rule out trying again, but with a different factory. And of course Sanni now has one of the worlds only BLACK thumbsticks, so it's not all bad :D

If anyone else ever wants seriously to try something like this feel free to PM me for any tips. If I think of any more I'll put them down here. This takes some serious cash (just the laser scanning for the 3d images was $500 USD), so don't even think about it unless, like me, you have come across a little extra that you can afford to potentially lose.
Edited by danny_galaga, Jun 29 2015, 01:12 AM.
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Vinyl
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(My manager was calling me 2 times, I could not hear him because I was reading this)

Thats intence! I was thinking about making something that looks like this but it was to complicated for me,

This was very interesting!

Just a stupid question but ... to start with a local company instead of high-level-China and make a small amount of it to try working with it. then go bigger.


(Maybe try re-creating N64 shells in other Funtastic colors next time? :D)
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Cabanon
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sadly, for things like this, i would try to keep it far away from China. we have much more precise machinery and, generally, have a much better attitude toward quality instead of cheapness. It would be a ton more expensive tho.
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bluedogrulez
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@danny galaga: Great stuff. Greatly appreciate your efforts!

1. 3D scan = awesome gameroom art. Ebay some prints to recoup $$$!

2. Kitch Bent makes decent axis pieces. Have you tried using your sticks with their axises? (and if you need some, I can ship some to you ... I think)

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kartmaster
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That's definitely disheartening.

I commend you for the patience and guts it took to get as far as you did.

There has to be some mid-sized corporations that requisition this type of manufacturing and are respected for their high quality "widgets". I think it would be invaluable to interview some of those project leads and get a sense of what the process is supposed to be like. I think that if they knew you weren't a competitor and showed an interest in what they do, somebody would be willing to talk about it.

Re-productions in pretty much all categories of things across the board are almost always of lesser quality than the original. So its apparent there are some legitimate challenges to reverse engineering something and not having some kind of loss of fidelity to the original. So I don't think you were unable to do something that other could do. Seems like people with plenty of resources still struggle.

And we're not talking about re-producing a hood ornament here. This is a very small moving part that has some very specific tolerances. It's like deciding to climb Mt. Everest on the first trip ever mountain climbing. So don't get too disheartened.

I hold out hope that someday a quality replacement will be available. But I think your story shows why what's already out there is what it is.

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Grimakis
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Last year I had my friend do a CAD sketch of one of the little gear parts in the N64 controller. After a couple of weeks with my controller and the digital caliper, he had what looked like a good sketch. I think he is considering doing the other.

At the end of the day, we were just going to have them 3D printed. Have you considered trying that?
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No64DD
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It's an awesome story- which means the details have already been ironed out...

We need a 3D printer!
Edited by No64DD, Jul 1 2015, 12:45 PM.
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danny_galaga
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Thanks for the kind words guys.

About China- people still have this idea that they only do low quality stuff. And perhaps have the idea it's all state run. It's pretty much all private industry. Not withstanding the fact that the original controller itself was made in China ;) , they are very keen to attract quality industry. Any new high tech factory has the best equipment that can be had, often German or American etc. The factories themselves are shiny. Many of the guys with uni qualifications got their degree in the West.

And they do this knowing that you can get it done fairly cheaply. I was mentored a little by someone I know on another forum. He helped me get some printed circuit boards made there (I would have done it in Australia but he assured me any time he tried to get Australian, the package would mysteriously arrive from Thailand or HK!) He has a factory in China. He does reproduction pinball parts, mostly electronics. His company is actually now making new pinball machines! Thunderbirds! Yes, he got a licence to make a Thunderbirds pinball machine!

The factory I went with does a lot of medical equipment etc, but also did reproduction stuff. If you find a factory in China with an English webpage, you are half way there, because they are interested in your custom. Ones that don't have that presence are probably as good, or even better but they probably have specific customers sewn up (say a large electronics or car company) and don't need the bother of piddly little customers like me :D

That's the plus side. As some of you have noted, it would have been a smoother process if I had gone local. The quality of the work should be the same, but if it's local enough (eg, even being in the same city) communication is bound to be magnitudes better. Not just language, but less clunky. I would have been able to get on the phone any time I needed to clarify something, or even drive over for a chat. And I am sure they wouldn't have destroyed my good parts in the materials test! But the cost is going to be much higher, and for such a small run would be quite hard to recoup costs. As it was I was going to charge around $5 a set. The other problem I foresaw was that a local company might be nervous about reproducing a Nintendo part, whereas the Chinese company wouldn't really be bothered. It was not a big concern in my mind, since the patents for those parts are probably expired and anyway, if I walk into EB Games right now I can see aftermarket controllers for CURRENT gen consoles. But a local company might not want to take a risk, especially if they knew about the big N!

I have seen the Kitch bent pieces and read the reviews. From what I can tell, they had similar problems to me and seem to be around what my Mk3 pieces were at, and not to be provocative, I don't think they are of a quality I wanted to put my name to. To quote Kartmaster "I think your story shows why what's already out there is what it is."

About 3D printing. When I first started thinking about this, 3D printing was not even on the radar. Now it has come a long way, but I don't think it is at the stage you can reproduce those gear teeth accurately enough. With advances it could be the future solution to all this because it works at quite low temperatures, and thus you could probably use the exact CAD file of the scan, without having to allow for shrinkage etc. But right now, there needs to be a leap in the 'resolution'. It is something that could be the future for us, arriving just when we've worn out our original parts! It would be a home thing, because my understanding is it takes a long time to print anything. Injection moulding, at the level I was paying for (which is not the highest level that could be done as far as I know) would make one set every 30 seconds or so.
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Cabanon
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do you know what kind of plastic are the mechanism made of after all ?
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danny_galaga
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It's so hard to trawl through all our emails! But on the design documents it says POM, which is Polyoxymethylene. However, I don't recall him ever using that particular term. Whatever it is, the black gear parts are a different type of plastic to the grey stick. I remember there not being a big difference between the two and we agreed to go with them all being the same material so that they could all exist in one mould. I will have a bit more of a trawl in due course though!
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