Manufacturing guy-at-large.

Filtering by Tag: procurement

A month or so of TPR work

Added on by Spencer Wright.

The Public Radio is in preproduction.

First: I spent part of week in Taiwan, Shenzhen, and Dongguan in late June visiting a few of our component suppliers, and parts started trickling in at our manufacturing partner last week. Proof:

A few notes here:

  • A huge thanks to Lucas, who came with me to the speaker factory and was just generally a hospitable guy while I was in Hong Kong & Shenzhen. Thanks also to Kuji for showing me an awesome time (see this video) in Shenzhen. 
  • Visiting our speaker manufacturer for the second time (the first time was two years ago) was great. Knowing our suppliers is a real treat, and I've very much enjoyed working with them.
  • Seeing the mold for our new custom speaker was big. This was an investment - both in the tool itself and in our relationship with our speaker factory - but it makes The Public Radio more robust and *much* easier to put together. It reduces the assembly's total number of parts and allows us to use larger screws, which are easier to handle and will take less time to install. That both saves us money and makes TPR an overall nicer product. This is also the second injection molded part I've ever designed and is *slightly* more complex than the one before it, so from a personal standpoint it was *really* fun to actually touch.
  • China, as always, is just mind boggling. I especially appreciated Ofo, which is amazing.

Second: Since then, I've been dealing with our remaining procurement issues (mostly logistics & cash flow planning; some vendor management) and then hammering on our actual manufacturing plan. The Public Radio has an extremely simple user interface, and to create that there's a *ton* of work that goes into managing the assembly & fulfillment process. This involves a few special things:

  1. As Zach and I discussed with Gabe on The Prepared's podcast a few weeks ago, we've now got a fully custom order management database which coordinates customers, tuning frequencies, and shipping data (and a few other little things).
  2. An instance of Tulip, which will handle not only our assembly training but is also acting as the connective tissue between our database and the real world. Tulip will coordinate barcode scans, assembly steps, and our radio programming jig to keep everything in sync. It also logs productivity and can help track defects down the road. In short, it's awesome.
  3. Our radio programming jig. Josh is taking a crack at this (among other things :) now, and hoping to make it more reliable & robust than the ones that we used on the first batch of Public Radios two years ago. 

These three things are *just* starting to really come together this week; I've got maybe a third of it all running on my desk right now.

Next up: We should have a fully functional prototype of our manufacturing system running in two weeks. We'll be testing it in NYC for about a week, and will then bring the whole thing to Chicago to fit it into Accelerated Assemblies' processes. By then we'll have all of our materials on site and, after a short run or two to iron out any kinks, will be in full production mode.

More soon :)

Bunnie Huang

Added on by Spencer Wright.

From a post called "Soylent Supply Chain:"

This point is often lost upon hardware startups. Very often I’m asked if it’s really necessary to go to Asia–why not just operate out of the US? Aren’t emails and conference calls good enough, or worst case, “can we hire an agent” who manages everything for us? I guess this is possible, but would you hire an agent to shop for dinner or buy clothes for you? The acquisition of material goods from markets is more than a matter of picking items from the shelf and putting them in a basket, even in developed countries with orderly markets and consumer protection laws. Judgment is required at all stages — when buying milk, perhaps you would sort through the bottles to pick the one with greatest shelf life, whereas an agent would simply grab the first bottle in sight. When buying clothes, you’ll check for fit, loose strings, and also observe other styles, trends, and discounted merchandise available on the shelf to optimize the value of your purchase. An agent operating on specific instructions will at best get you exactly what you want, but you’ll miss out better deals simply because you don’t know about them. At the end of the day, the freshness of milk or the fashion and fit of your clothes are minor details, but when producing at scale even the smallest detail is multiplied thousands, if not millions of times over.

More significant than the loss of operational intelligence, is the loss of a personal relationship with your supply chain when you surrender management to an agent or manage via emails and conference calls alone. To some extent, working with a factory is like being a houseguest. If you clean up after yourself, offer to help with the dishes, and fix things that are broken, you’ll always be welcome and receive better service the next time you stay. If you can get beyond the superficial rituals of politeness and create a deep and mutually beneficial relationship with your factory, the value to your business goes beyond money–intangibles such as punctuality, quality, and service are priceless.

This is really smart.

Directions in automation adoption

Added on by Spencer Wright.

I've been spending a lot of time looking at industrial automation the past few days, and had an idle thought:

I've touched on this before, if only obliquely, when writing about's role in manufacturing logistics. Much attention is being paid to companies who want to simplify (or circumvent) some part of the product development value chain. Many of these are companies I admire, and think are doing really valuable things. Take Within, whose 3D design software generates structures that are driven directly from functional constraints (but can't, as far as I can tell, deal well with thin-walled structures). Or Willow Garage's PR2, the really slick research robot (that takes charmingly long - 20 minutes per bath towel - to fold laundry).

Each of these is an incredibly impressive feat, and one that follows an ambitious (and I would argue honorable) line of thinking:

If we can encode all of the information needed to complete a routine yet complex task, then we can use machines to automate the process, freeing up our minds to do other (presumably more important) things.

But consider an alternate proposal:

If we can get machines to mimic a series of behaviors that humans can plan and execute with relative ease, then we can decrease the amount of rote mechanical work that humans need to do.

This is the tact taken seriously by Baxter, the admittedly not-too-serious (but cool nonetheless) humanoid task robot built by Rethink Robotics. Baxter learns by physically training his movements, presumably by the technician who he's "collaborating" with:

Even the traditional robotics companies, like Kuka, are moving in the direction of using robots simply to execute the complex tasks that humans calculate and perform with ease. Here a Kuka robot is trained how to clean a permanent mold by a BMW employee:

Both of these robots' use cases share a key feature: There's still a human doing the "hard" planning and calculation about how the task will be completed. In each case the robot doesn't understand the physical constraints or goals per se. Baxter has some awareness of his surroundings for sure, but all he knows is that his arms hit something; he doesn't have the vision or awareness of why that happened or how to correct for it.

Similarly, the Kuka bot doesn't understand that he's cleaning a mold, or have the facilities to learn how to do better work. He's just repeating a toolpath that he knows a human told him to do. Which, in this case, is good enough - and a hell of a lot faster than waiting for a computer vision expert to give him the intelligence required to do better.

I'm not sure what the implications of this are for the companies working to automate the design and supply chain. But the philosophical difference is striking, and I must say that the more hands-on model is very compelling - and I expect it to be so for the foreseeable future.


Parenthetically: All of the industrial 3D printing market is currently driven off of this same model: An intelligent, experienced technician makes manual edits to 3D CAD data in order to get a part to print within its design constraints. Anyone who suggests that build optimization is "right around the corner" is, in my opinion, *not* to be trusted. We're in a world of basic research still, and an automated design-print-post process chain is many years away.


Added on by Spencer Wright.

I have about 50 of these in my inbox on right now:

Not all Chinese manufacturers are as charming as this one, but in general they're *much* more outwardly communicative than American suppliers. 

Pro supplier moves

Added on by Spencer Wright.
  1. Calling me out of the blue to say "hey." Before that, you're just some guy on the internet who sent me a quote - and I've got like 50 of those to deal with right now.
  2. Following up with an email within the hour.
  3. Following up with another email a week later with a picture of some samples (minus the knurling, but you acknowledge that) that you made.

Now you've got my attention. And then I respond and say something about how important the feel of the knurling is to us, because the knob is really the only UI element in The Public Radio. And now we have a relationship.

So: Tru Precision Manufacturing LLC. Good stuff.

Speaker mods

Added on by Spencer Wright.

One of the big pain points to date on The Public Radio is that our speaker - a Dayton Audio CE32A-4 - was *not* designed to be PCB mounted. Like most good quality full range speakers (it's one of the most expensive items on our BOM), it's got solder lugs, which are designed to have wire soldered to them.

So, why did we choose this speaker? Partly because of sound quality - it's really the best available given our size constraints. It was also relatively easy to attach to on the cone side; the plastic flange is sized nicely and has four good screw holes in it. And anyway, we figured we could work something out if we ever had to build a whole lot of radios.

Fortunately, at 2000 units we start to be in the range where getting custom PCB pins could make sense. It'll cost us some time (13-15 weeks) but that's okay if we decide quickly - and we'd probably wait that long anyway just getting the full quantity from our supplier. So I drew up a basic version of the pins we'd want and sent it to Dayton:

I'm not sure what the net cost will be on the parts, but the assembly will be significantly less expensive and *much* more reliable. 

Public Radio updates

Added on by Spencer Wright.

My last week has been spent mostly trying to squeeze money out of our potentiometer knob. The one we had been using - a Kilo product - has terrible pricing, even at quantity ($2.38 @ 2000 units). So I remodeled the part and started poking around.

I got a bunch of quotes from some US machine shops I know that are closer to the $2 range. I also got a quote from Taiwan for about $.50 apiece (though I'll expect additional shipping/customs costs). 

Then, I put the part on At quantities of 2000, this should hit a good spot for a lot of US mill-turn shops - and so far the response has been pretty good. I'll let the quoting period run for a while still, but I expect to pay no more than $1 for these parts, and that's including clear anodizing and possibly shipping to NY.

These are all for quantities of 2000 units.

Meanwhile, Andy has been researching FM IC pricing; Zach has been looking into batteries and tactile switches; and Eden has been poking around at PCBA shops. 

My next focus will be on the lid and the speaker. The former is in a pretty good place right now, but the speaker wants some real love... updates soon.