|Hey Dumbass, Why Does It Take You 4 Months To Design Hardware??||| Print ||
|Written by Akiba|
|Monday, 02 November 2009|
People following this blog are probably wondering what I’ve been doing the past four months. Well, I’ve discovered that developing wireless sensor network hardware has been more of a challenge than I had anticipated. The design was actually the easy part. It’s everything that comes after that makes my life difficult. When I started on the hardware development, I thought that I just needed to design the boards, tune the radios, and stick them in a web storefront. Looking back, I’d say this was completely naive. The original idea was to have a supply of boards both for my own use and to sell in a webshop. My eventual goal is to make this open source project self-sustainable and I had figured that making hardware was the easiest way to get there. That was a gross underestimation.
One of the things that I discovered is that designing a schematic and making a PCB is just one small part of the overall design process when you’re trying to bring a board to market. There are a lot of factors that get ignored or underestimated like prototyping, sourcing components, prepping for manufacture, testing, writing documentation, and of course, the killer issue of all low-volume hardware outfits: assembly. A lot of these areas are trial-and-error and the error part is what consumes a lot of the time.
In the last four months, I’ve designed seven PCBs: three for Tokyo Hackerspace, four for FreakLabs. In that time, I’ve learned quite a bit about the flaws in my overall design process and also the business side of trying to manufacture and sell boards. I’ve made a lot of mistakes that could have been corrected in the design phase if I had more insight into how I was going to manufacture and assemble the boards, but it’s tough to get that insight without going through the overall process a few times. I can’t really complain because although the past four months have wreaked havoc on both the Zigbee project and my personal life (and made me even more anti-social than I used to be), I have to say that I’ve probably also accumulated more hardware, manufacturing, and business knowledge than I’ve ever had in my entire career.
I’ve mentioned before that assembly is the big killer for small volume hardware outfits and the reason is that the hardware industry is poorly set up for low volume production. Actually, the hardware manufacturing industry is in kind of a bizarre state right now. It’s never been easier to manufacture PCBs and to get them in quantities of 50 to 100 is still quite cheap.
On the other side, the hardware assembly process is basically in the same state that it’s been for the last 30-40 years where they’re geared to do medium to high volume projects and the non-recurring costs of setting up are prohibitive for low volumes. There are also a host of other issues with outsourcing the assembly such as long lead times (6 weeks seems to be the norm), the time it takes to have assembled samples made, shipped to you, and verified for correctness, sourcing the components and having them shipped to the assembly house, and finally releasing the project for production.
Because of these problems, I decided early on that I would bring the assembly process in-house and have been spending quite a bit of time in the last couple months figuring out how to operate my own pick and place machine. At this point, I’m pretty confident in my operation and am getting quite handy at working the machine. I’ve also learned to love it and accept it as part of my family. I’m even confident enough on its basic operation to write some tutorials which have been more popular than I really expected.
I’m being pretty long-winded, but the main point is that these past few months have been spent figuring out how the operations are going to work so that I can realistically bring out open hardware wireless boards and platforms that go along with the open source wireless stacks that I’m writing. In the process, I’m hoping to write some tutorials on what it takes to manufacture boards targeted at low-volume niche markets sustainably. That last word is probably the most important. Once the issues are figured out, and its something that the open hardware community is actively working on, then I think it’ll be much easier for others to pursue areas that they’re passionate about and hopefully enjoy the same life that I’m trying to create for myself.I also wanted to say that these past four months have also led me into the arms of the open hardware community which is totally vibrant and dripping with innovation. For all the Harvard professors that are lamenting the world’s lack of innovation, they should really get their heads out of their asses and look in the basements of some of these shops ;)
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