This is Snapshot, where members of German Autolabs discuss unique working challenges, from overseas manufacturing to natural language understanding. Today, our resident hardware engineer, Federico, describes how to build a brand new piece of hardware, from drawing board to award win.
In The Beginning
In the beginning was an idea: let’s build the world’s first in-car voice assistant. That idea became a huge stack of paperwork, sketches and meeting requests which eventually was given the name ‘Chris’.
The first steps towards designing Chris involved taking development boards like Arduino and Raspberry Pi, and then connecting different components together including the display, microphone and breakout board for the gesture sensors. We wired up everything with a nest of cables, chucked it in a shoe box and left the lab to show the world our new invention.
The secondary design stage involved choosing a dedicated hardware development platform, where we could start developing our firmware code and then our hardware development board. We looked at system performance, and then could start the process of our custom hardware design, inspired by the hardware development board.
Here, we also started selecting our hardware components. Testing can get somewhat freaky around this time. You’ll need to come up with creative solutions to unforeseen problems. I remember listening for audio buzz on a DC converter by using a plastic straw like a doctor’s stethoscope to identify the source of the problem.
From Action Plan to Execution
There are quite a few different challenges when you manufacture a product in Asia. Logistical and organizational challenges rear their heads early on, especially the time difference between you and your factory, and also the working language. Collaborating with the other side of the world introduces time delays in execution. Typically you need to schedule calls at 9am CET, which in Asia is almost home time. This can lead to the necessity to introduce a delay in between action plan and execution.
One time, we had to make a minor modification to a mechanical component inside Chris. We scheduled a call for the following day, which then took a further 24 hours to get into the product due to the timezone delays. Over 48 hours from decision to implementation for a small and simple job. The times when we had team members on the ground in Asia helped to massively speed up our manufacturing process.
If you plan to manufacture there, I really recommend you have one of your team on site, especially at the beginning. The cost for a startup might seem high – but not as high as the host of problems that can occur with limited oversight of the manufacturing process.
We didn’t have many language issues in Malaysia since English is widely spoken, but if you decide to base your manufacturing in China then there can be some fairly serious issues that may require translators to help solve – less than ideal. Indeed, if you’re starting to manufacture your first batch of hardware in relatively low volumes, then it may well be worth investigating Eastern Europe as a base for your early-stage operations.
Assembling the Printed Circuit Board (PCB) did not present significant problems. PCBs were assembled on an SMT (Surface Mount Technology) line and our boards passed the inspection process with flying colours. Some issues you might encounter relate to the soldering of SMD (Surface Mount Device) components onto the boards, especially Ball Grid Array (BGA) components, where X-ray inspections are essential to eliminate any possible issues during the soldering process.
Having programmed the assembled boards, tests were conducted in the test jig. This phase can be tricky since the test script is often written by the factory, but based on the software functionality of the product firmware. It’s a fine balance. Thus your internal embedded software team needs to work closely with the factory in order to write the script and complete the testing phase successfully.
Putting It All Together
The team must then train operators at the factory to assemble the product flawlessly. This is the most robust way to ensure proper assembly and troubleshooting during the assembly phase. The team created standard operating procedure (SOP) documents to effectively train operators and ensure accountability and transparency. Doing it this way will help you to encounter fewer headaches in manufacturing.
The acid test for the assembled product occurs when the operator runs the End of Line (EOL) test, which in our case meant connecting Chris to a smartphone and launching our test app. We trained our operators on how to speak to Chris, and teaching them to run the gesture tests was especially unique. I once spent 3 solid days training operators how to move their hands correctly in order to train Chris’ gesture recognition. It can be a strange job, sometimes.
Getting Chris Out The Door
We started shipping units from Penang to Dusseldorf, where our logistics center is based. From there we could begin to ship the first units to our Kickstarter backers and then to our pre-orders. As the product gathered steam, we began to ship Chris units to new customers through our own dedicated e-commerce channel on chris.com, and through Amazon.
A major problem for hardware startups can occur after product launch when a percentage of customers return their device. A high return rate can be a killer for a young company. The way we handled this was to use Kickstarter. Backers on Kickstarter cannot return their product, so the product has to be really strong from the beginning. And even though our return rates were not critically high, we still needed our strong support team to manage the Kickstarter community and help convert unhappy backers into satisfied users.
Next Step: CES 2020
Our trips to Malaysia forged great memories. I had the good fortune to work alongside people with deep experience developing and manufacturing products for some of the biggest consumer electronics companies in the U.S. The trips fostered a strong sense of camaraderie, both with my colleagues from Berlin and with our associates at the factory.
Each day we ate lunch at the canteen, enjoying great Malaysian food with people from the factory including project managers, manufacturing representatives and operators. Many days we ended up working until 11pm or later, ordering mie goreng, pizza and burgers, and enjoying them on the rooftop of the factory watching while planes taking off from the runway of Penang International.
Next up for the hardware team is a top-secret architecture demonstrator for one of our latest voice solutions. We’re building it to be ready for CES 2020, so if you’re going to be in Las Vegas then make sure to come and say ciao.
Thanks for reading!