Why is it so hard to produce ZX Spectrum add-on Hardware in the UK.

Arguably the UK Spectrum add-on market is stagnating? Why ? Well obviously the ZX Spectrum is a very old retro micro so it's fan base would normally be xpected to shrink and possibly eventually disappear over time (and it is getting on for about 40 years or so since it was first made) . But it is not as simple as that :- Quite a lot of (un named !!) kit is still produced in Europe and elsewhere but not so much in the UK anymore which is odd and the Spectrum still has a loyal following in the UK . So considering the extra costs of postage incurred why is the production of this ( sometimes more complete type of) kit now largely based ouside the UK?

Of course some "bare PCB" kit is still made in the UK but not much . The days of complete items with PCBs ,cases and sometimes with keyboards etc , being produced seem to be over . But quite a lot of kit is still made abroad . Why is this ? Here are a few initial thoughts on this ( probably needs more work) :-

1) High labour costs ( at least for the type of labour required to produce complete items)
2) The relative failure of IT education in the UK ( so lack of required skills)
3) The relative declining wealth and power of the UK in the world economy.
4) The availabilty of cheaper parts abroad has made the cost of completed items look too expensive (ie now too hard to make a decent profit)

Any other ideas?

Comments

  • 5) The internet. Finding out about and buying items from overseas is now just as easy as buying from the UK. Additional postage costs for doing so tend to be relatively low and offset by the convenience of the online buying process.

    6) Wider user base. The UK is small. Europe (and the rest of the world) is big. You're comparing one small area with a large group of others combined.
  • There are (and were) strong groups of users and enthusiasts in places in the world other than the U.K. A significant number of expansions / add-ons come about because these people have developed the items themselves.

    The cost of PCB production has crashed in recent years (partly due to China and other places making reasonable quality PCBs). So why would you expect the U.K. to be the centre of innovation or production?

    In most European countries, it’s just as easy to get the parts as it is in the U.K. (and indeed, most of the big electronic companies in the U.K. are part of a much larger European or world wide group).

    I’ve bought ZX Spectrum or ZX81 bits from the U.K., Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Germany, Spain, U.S.A. and various other places.

    I’m glad that people are still enjoying designing, building expansions / add-ons and still supporting the scene.

    Mark
  • I don't think it's any of these reasons:

    1) High labour costs

    Does anyone making Speccy hardware make a profit? I don't think labour costs mean anything really, these are not mass produced items, it's always going to be expensive to make them.

    2) The relative failure of IT education in the UK

    The best education in the world means nothing if the generation receiving it didn't grow up with a Speccy, they are just highly unlikely to be interested in it enough to make hardware for it. I'm not saying we have amazing IT education, just that I don't think it's a factor.

    3) The relative declining wealth and power of the UK in the world economy.

    Not sure how this would affect making Speccy addons, it's not exactly going to make anyone wealthy in any country.

    4) The availabilty of cheaper parts abroad has made the cost of completed items look too expensive (ie now too hard to make a decent profit)

    Until the end of 2020 when Brexit happens, the cost will be the same for anyone inside the EU. Also, it's not a very competitive market, I just ordered a ZX81 keyboard from Australia, it wasn't exactly cheap, but there isn't enough demand to mass produce them at cheaper costs, so the end user is always going to pay that increased cost.


    Also, doesn't https://www.thefuturewas8bit.com/ make Speccy hardware in the UK? So I think the answer is... it's not hard to produce it in the UK at all, it's just that very few people want to do it when there isn't a huge demand. And the market is so small, it's not really big enough to get data that is useful and going to tell you if it is actually a problem or not.

    ;)
  • edited October 20
    Ok well it is good to be comprehensively critiqued. These were just initial thoughts . Not much is made in the UK now but it is good to get the gen on companies like "thefuturewas8bit" ( not everybody knows about this!) . But I checked it out : 8bit is of course not Speccy specific (even I know that) . To "prove" this I tried the Tynemouth Software offerings on this site. I was interested in this particular aspect because stuff like the Speccy USB kit stuff is no longer available on Tindie ( and I found it was not on here on "thefurewas8bit" either ) . So the new generic "business plan" for these small kit makers appears to be to cater for the wider 8 bit market rather than specialise in just one micro.So the question then is : "How much Speccy specific kit will be available from these suppliers"? This is likely to be determined by factors such as " which group of micro users have the most spare hobby cash for add-on purchaes?" And then a further question is : Is this at all related to the original cost of the Micros? This last question is a bit assumptive as it presumes that the customers that had the most cash in the first place to buy expensive BBC Micros will carry on buying BBC add-on kit in their old age.If Speccy users are deemed to be a the "bottom of the pile" cash wise then maybe less stuff will be made for them .( I am just trying to guess the response to this "What a lot of old ....ocks!)
    Post edited by harriusherbartio on
  • edited October 20
    Of course some "bare PCB" kit is still made in the UK but not much . The days of complete items with PCBs ,cases and sometimes with keyboards etc , being produced seem to be over .

    How do you define what is "Made in the UK" when parts and skills are sourced from all over the world?

    In Sinclair's days the only made-in-the-uk IC would have been the ULA. I suppose the case, keyboard and PCB were made in Scotland, at least for the 48K. Maybe the closest you have to this sentiment today is the Spectrum Next:

    * The case is designed in the UK but the mould and case is manufactured in China. Making the mould in China is a lot cheaper as is doing the cases there, nevermind the cost (heavy!) and risk (one-of-a-kind breakage) of moving the mould out of China back to the UK.

    * The keyboard is designed in the UK but made in China, again cost.

    * The PCB is designed by a Brazilian but the complete PCBs are wholly manufactured in the UK. The cost along with testing is higher than it would be if done in China. Testing in particular is quite expensive and labour intensive and I am not even sure if it could be adequately done in China without someone being there. At SMS, there was someone from the Next team who wrote testing software and demonstrated its use at SMS for the first few days of test assembly. In those days, a few problems were discovered that were not present on the board-only pcbs and those were fixed before the ramp-up stage. Could that have been done if all was made in China? I really doubt it.

    * The box (I think) is made in the UK but designed by a Mexican.

    * The manual is printed and bound in Greece and edited by a Greek.

    * The operating system is based on +3DOS and the esxdos api, wholly created in the UK. (The esxdos api was created by Czech(s) but it's the api that is implemented -- no code is taken).

    * The fpga hardware is designed by a Brazilian and a Canadian with input from others.

    * Other system software is written by people from various countries.

    Why are things like assembly, plastics, mould, pcb so much more cheaply done in China especially for low volume projects? That's probably due to overall volume, meaning they are set up for automating small runs, and lower labour cost. The labour input for pcb comes into setup and inspecting finished boards to make sure they are correct -- I don't think this can be wholly automated but it depends on what is being made too: there's going to be a difference between a plain pcb and a populated one. Speaking about the Next's keyboard in particular, that was labour intensive as there was someone building each keyboard from scratch, pushing in the individual keys in the right places. And then there is the shipping cost -- somehow China has made it cheap to ship worldwide like no other country is doing.

    When China has such large advantages in cost, other countries' manufacturing atrophy or change to serve a different requirement. For example, maybe they specialize in services at the prototyping stage for quick turnaround or they specialize in more advanced technology than the mainstream. Or they become a one-stop-shop like SMS has done.

    But using China as manufacturer does not come completely without pain. There is a language barrier and there is no way to directly oversee what they are doing. I can say there was a big difference in dealing with SMS (in the UK) than with partners in China. I don't think it's a coincidence that the main source of stuff made in China for the Sinclair community is coming from someone actually living in China.
    But it is not as simple as that :- Quite a lot of (un named !!) kit is still produced in Europe and elsewhere but not so much in the UK anymore

    But back to the smaller scale peripherals thing. These are being made by hobbyists with parts sourced from worldwide and pcbs made in China. The last step is putting them together and quite often that is someone with a soldering iron making one item at a time. There is no advantage or disadvantage compared to anyone else in the EU in doing these activities except maybe postage costs but I don't think that would be significant. That will likely change after brexit but I think retro is probably less cost sensitive than most commodity products unless the difference in cost is really high. The main dealers running full time businesses have to mark up the pricing from cost a fair way already.

    There isn't a lot of money being made in Sinclair retro (aside from maybe a few who have turned it into a full time business -- but only by selling many items not just one or two and likely there isn't room for more) so you've got to have someone who is passionate about making something and with the skills to do it whilst expecting little in return. That's been done by people in the UK, Spain, East Europe and Russia which reflects the regions where the Spectrum was dominant. It's not just the UK where the Spectrum distributed in the millions and I don't think it's right to assume most of this activity would be in the UK which I think is the assumption in your original post.

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  • edited October 20
    So the new generic "business plan" for these small kit makers appears to be to cater for the wider 8 bit market rather than specialise in just one micro.So the question then is : "How much Speccy specific kit will be available from these suppliers"?

    I think the Sinclair community is one of the largest still active 8-bit groups out there. I think it's only the Commodore and Sinclair communities that are creating new software at a high rate and hardware sold in the thousands as opposed to the tens or possibly hundreds for other systems. I would say the commercial quality level is only reached by Commodore and Sinclair communities as well if you ignore the one-time retro systems produced by the likes of Nintendo and Sega (or Analog). At least from what I am aware.
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  • I'm not really a big fan of the mini machines like the C64 mini or the PS mini. I have the Elite Recreated Spectrum because it is a lovely thing. I think emulators go a long way if you just want to play the games. The Spectrum has a following all over the world and was iconic for its time.

    Sometimes a collector will want to keep the original hardware working so there has to be a good supply of spare parts. I don't personally see the attraction of the Spectrum Next although these things do attract a lot of backers through crowdfunding.

    15 years ago you could buy a ZX Spectrum 48k+ for £8 on eBay. Now you will hardly see one for under £100.

    I think the lack of hardware manufacturing is because its easier to install, download and update software (emulators) than purchase a one-off piece of hardware.
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  • edited October 21
    Thanks for the replies everyone . There were some good point made.

    1) Defining "produced in the UK" .1) So designing it 2) Getting in all the parts from wherever round the world 3) Assembly 4) Marketing from a UK base 5) Retailing it from a UK base .

    2) The "cultural resonance" of the ZX Spectrum in the UK (in contrast to China) . This is to do with Mark's point. In China ZX Spectrum add-ons are just a very unimportant low profit commodity . There is no ZX Spectrum heartland in China or Hong Kong . A society that has very little cultural "tie in" with a product is unlikely to want to develop in . The situation is different in Russia where the ZX Spectrum made a big impact and was widely cloned . So the obvious question to ask is why is Russia not a big Speccy Add-On producer? . The situation in the UK? : I would expect that Britain which has had a strong design ability ( in the past more perhaps) , a reasonable number of Speccy hobbyists with a strong ZX Spectrum "cultural inheritance" from the past would be better placed than China to innovate and produce add-on products (as Spain has done) . So the question is why this addon culture is fading away a bit.

    3) The not a very competitve market point : This is a good point . A non competitive market should allow for high profit margin . I think maybe the socio economic factors I mentioned by me come in here ,in particular the inequalities of "consumer spend" . Games Workshop is on the edge of being the size of a FTSE 100 company . It has it's "small" customers that just spend a £1000 or so and it had the "big" customers that routinely spend thousands . ZX Spectrum add-on customers do not do this (anymore) . So lack of competition can co-exist with lack of profitabilty. ( phew I finally got "half an argument together!)
    Post edited by harriusherbartio on
  • There has in recent years been rather a lot of new hardware activity for Acorn machines on StarDot forum for example. So much so, that a member has compiled a long list...

    The ZX81/TS1000 community, the Amstrad CPC community, the QL community, are just some that have also seen busts of hardware activity.

    One important point is that nearly all of this is driven by individual developers. It gets rather repetitive to keep manufacturing the same product. So often the number of units is limited both in number and in the time that these are available. Hence in a lot of cases, there is a small surge followed by a gradual decline followed by famine. Then some time will pass before someone else creates something new, or further develops an existing idea. Or maybe the original producer will do another run.

    Mark

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  • Thats a good point : "small batch" production lives a bit in its own world
  • During the 1980s, the U.K. did manufacture some types of 74LSxxx logic chips. But I have not really noted if I saw any used in ZX Spectrums.

    The ZTX range of transistors (as used in ZZX Spectrums) were I think made in the U.K.

    Some memory chips used in ZX80, possibly some ZX81 and issue 1 ZX Spectrum machines were made in Ireland.

    Most semiconductors though don’t have the country of manufacturer printed on them.

    In fact, most products these days often don’t list the country of “major manufacturing”.

    Some products that in the 1980s appeared to be U.K. produced, actually were made in Taiwan.

    Mark
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  • edited October 21
    2) ...The situation in the UK? : I would expect that Britain which has had a strong design ability ( in the past more perhaps) , a reasonable number of Speccy hobbyists with a strong ZX Spectrum "cultural inheritance" from the past would be better placed than China to innovate and produce add-on products (as Spain has done) . So the question is why this addon culture is fading away a bit.

    Something should be clarified: nothing spectrum related is innovated in China. When the pcb or whatever is made in China, the design work has already been done and they are only providing cheap manufacture.

    I'm not sure that the add-on culture has faded away. People who want to use original hardware only need a few things to make the experience better. A fast mass storage option compatible with nearly all software (this has settled on the divmmc interface). A way to connect modern(-ish) displays (this has settled on, mostly, the zx hd and vga-joy). A joystick interface (some kempston type).

    For people who are adventurous there is networking via spectranet or if1bis although I don't know if the latter is made anymore. Or people can replace their ula with something that supports ula+. Or they can add audio options with turbosound or turbosound fm. Or they can add a mouse (kempston type).

    For people who are nostalgiac there are legacy mass storage devices like new disciple and opus discovery disk interfaces. Or modern microdrive replacements that use sd card rather than microdrive tapes. Or if1bis which emulates microdrive using sd card or network iirc.

    A few of the options above were created in the UK but today are being made by others in Europe mainly because the original creators are no longer producing more. As mentioned, I don't think you can expect most things to be created in the UK because the Spectrum user base is also large outside the UK.

    You can only attach a few devices to the spectrum before bus loading becomes an issue and those few devices are going to narrow down to the essentials: mass storage, display, joystick. And among those there are clear favourite solutions.

    Beyond add-ons there are reproduction machines that are mainly reproducing the original machine with a couple modern peripherals. These are things like the harlequin, omni, etc (the original design work was in the UK but others have run further with it since). There is an add-on which integrates a lot of peripherals into one in the mb03+. And there are computers that evolve the zx architecture while integrating a lot of peripherals and maintaining compatibility with several zx models rather than just one (spectrum next, zx evo). The uno is worth mentioning too but it more straddles the middle between old and new.

    Is there a reason for someone in the UK to build these things if supply is adequate from other sources? If you're thinking there should be more add-ons, what would they be for? I think if you really want to push the capability further than what is already there for original hardware, you have to improve on the original machine and that direction has been taken (spectrum next, zx evo among others).
    2) ...So the obvious question to ask is why is Russia not a big Speccy Add-On producer?

    They do produce add-ons like turbosound / turbosound fm, general sound, and an ide interface among other things. But their standard machine, speaking about the pentagon, had disk interface and joystick integrated. What sort of further add-ons were really needed by end users on the base model? Instead they chose to evolve the pentagon and so you had models with faster cpu speed options, more memory, new screen resolutions, and so on. But these things were in much smaller numbers than the standard pentagon 128K.

    As far as selling to the West, the pentagon is not a fully compatible machine with the original spectrum models so that is part of it. But some things do find their way like turbosound fm.
    3) The not a very competitve market point : This is a good point . A non competitive market should allow for high profit margin .

    Production costs are quite high when the numbers are small. The sticker shock for the last spectrum next kickstarter was case in point and it is not a money making venture -- the desire is only to complete without having to sink in personal funds to cover shortfalls. That extends to smaller scale production too although they can avoid the vagaries of sales tax and certification and the largest cost contributor is likely how much the producer values his time.
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  • Well we have given the subject "a whirl".
  • edited October 22
    THE FUTURE IS "8 BIT" (Why is this true for the Speccy?)

    It was now clear that most "purveyors" of Speccy gear and operating in a wider "8 bit" context . The days of sophisticated specialist sellers of ZX Spectrum , like "Romantic Robot" , are long gone . It possible that most Speccy hobbyists have accepted the "8 bit" future as a bit obvious but I think it is interesting to look at why this is probaply inevitable . So far , I have argued that the Speccy "spend" is possibly lower than in some other high end hobby areas like Games Wokshop . So we have a combination in the UK of:- 1) lowish spend per customer and 2) Very few new customers ( so not really a growing area) . Also the "spend" per customer might possibly be lower than other "micro" 8 bit hobbyist areas because the Spectrum computer was cheaper in the first place ! This of course does not mean that every customer who chose a "cheap" Spectrum in the 1980s stays "cheap" but this could still be a factor at a more "macro" level.

    But I had forgotten to add "fixed and variable" costs aspect into my argument . I will argue here that the best chance of ensuring Speccy parts survival lies with the "8 bit" retailer sector ( yes and I am arguing this even though it is probably perfectly obvious!) and that this is because retailing Speccy parts may help retailers make a contribution to their fixed costs .

    The background to all this is as follows :- Variable costs, like labour and electric , have to be covered in the short term otherwise a business goes bust pretty quickly . To be profitable though , in the long run , a business has to cover both its fixed and variable costs . It has been argued by Robeee Jay above that selling Speccy bits NEVER makes a profit .. If that were true (and it might be) then surely no one would bother to bother with it ? It would simply not be profitable to cater for it . So why do they bother with it?. One reason they might do is that , once the VARIABLE costs are covered , ( by selling a mix of 8 bit Micro gear as most Retro gear retailers do "these days") any further contributions towards the FIXED costs are gratefully received .For these retailers, Speccy stuff is worth including in the mix because it can make a small contribution towards the fixed costs of their business. So even though the Spectrum may not profitable overall (on its own) nevertheless it could survive in the spares market if it is useful in this way to sellers in keeping their businesses afloat because it helps by making a contribution towards FIXED costs in their "8 bit" parts and add-ons businesses. "THE FUTURE IS 8 BIT" (so true)!

    So we can assume the retailers know this and may have even named some of their businesses along these lines because of it ( well it may be true!)
    Post edited by harriusherbartio on
  • edited October 23
    THE QUESTION OF "DEMAND"

    Is there much demand ( or "call for") for "complete" kit add-on Speccy hardware in the UK?

    I think it has been implied above that not much kit is really needed as most people already have all the kit they need - so no need to buy any more. This may be true for emulation but surely not so much for "authentic Spectrum retro" emulation enthuiasts ( for this sub genre you really do need authentic "of the period" Atari style joysticks and "rubber key" lookalike 48k keyboards!) ? I could be wrong on this but I think that this "authentic emulation" style is quite niche and so demand for this kit could be quite low . In fact one supplier , fairly recently told me he had not had any Speccy orders for ages ( so I had to assume I was his only recent customer).

    But never mind there are other Speccy genres , in particular , there is using an actual 1980s ZX Spectrum . This can be a bit problematic screen display wise which is why such specialist interfaces are only sold in the Netherlands . And this is an "almost" complete bit of kit so it is expensive. Why is kit like this not made in the UK? Here are some possibilties:-

    1) Is it true that UK Speccy owners are a bit "strapped for cash"? (so low demand)
    2) Is it true that only a few Speccy owners want to do this to old Spectrums? (Maybe there are too worried about "Ram Pack" or interface wobble to bother)
    3) Is it true that retail kit suppliers in the UK now want to be "8 bit generalists" rather than mere "Speccy Specialists" ? And the quite high price of this possibly slow moving interface item would therefore tie up too much business resource to be worth innovating , developing and stocking in the UK?
    4) And is it also true that , in the UK , the Speccy market has become more sub divided into specialist sub genres or different ways of using Speccy related stuff? . This would made it harder to sell to , possibly as specialist interfaces would have to be just part of a wider range of stock held.
    Post edited by harriusherbartio on
  • I think to answer those questions you either need to survey all the UK speccy owners, or talk to someone who makes addons.
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  • I suppose the case, keyboard and PCB were made in Scotland, at least for the 48K.
    I think Issue 4S boards were manufactured by Samsung in Taiwan (but don’t quote me on that).
    Every man should plant a tree, build a house, and write a ZX Spectrum game.

    Author of A Yankee in Iraq, a 50 fps shoot-’em-up—the first game to utilize the floating bus on the +2A/+3,
    and zasm Z80 Assembler syntax highlighter.
    Member of the team that discovered, analyzed, and detailed the floating bus behavior on the ZX Spectrum +2A/+3.

    A few Spectrum game fixes.
  • edited October 24
    Well that is interesting.

    I can see that in this thread here I made some assumptions which could have been wrong:-

    https://worldofspectrum.org/forums/discussion/57591/what-original-spectrum-hardware-was-made-in-korea#latest

    And the assumption was that , because Samsung is a South Korean company , the Speccy 4S PCBs must have been made in Korea as "back then" it would have been cheap to do so . I never thought that they could have been farmed out to Taiwan . Now that would be a hard thing to check out .

    (Some time later) Well I googled it and found this . Here they think it was Korea ( but were they assuming like me?)

    https://mutant-caterpillar.co.uk/shop/product_info.php?products_id=4363.

    I seem to rember the cases were marked as Korean but not the PCBs
    Post edited by harriusherbartio on
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