How we designed great hardware outside Silicon Valley

A story about designing and building Bitdefender BOX


Bucharest, Romania. September 2013. I was witnessing a very private demo of a new technology that would revolutionize consumer security. A handful of people gathered in a tiny office at Bitdefender HQ where a couple of colleagues demoed a circuit board that blocked malware. They were so confident, they connected it to their own computers and browsed to some infected websites. But it could be any device, really. And it worked.

The Internet is bustling with malicious threats: malware, spyware, spam, phishing, pharming and other scams. To protect from them one would install a piece of security software on their computer. But we access the Internet from a bunch of devices that sometimes have no way to run security software, say an iPhone, an iPad or a smart TV. That circuit board closed the circle, and protected all devices connected regardless of their make or OS. This was big.

I was leading the team that designed the signature Bitdefender security products. We had just launched our latest yearly revision and were feeling pretty good about ourselves.

Following the demo we assembled a team of two to start working on the new project we called “TBX”, a short for “the BOX”. We had no hardware product design experience. This was still an R&D project. So when we hired Alex V. — a talented engineer who never practiced his industrial design education — to do the 3D modeling, we didn’t know he’d still have a job in three months.

We went ahead, regardless.

Doubts and inspiration

Security isn’t attractive. Quite the contrary. So we set ourselves the challenge to redefine it, package it in something friendly and trustworthy. We had no idea how hard this was going to be, but it became obvious later it was a good call to design in house.

TBX was to be installed in homes of happy people, connected to the WiFi router. But as we looked deeper we learned people hated their routers and hid them in cabinets, drawers or behind their TVs. We didn’t want such a sad fate for our beautiful new object. It had to look gorgeous, would have a design that prevented stacking and a clever cable management system.

We looked at IKEA furniture for cues. Much of word’s wood goes into making the veneer you find on many of Ikea’s most popular products, including Expedit, now Kallax — an improved shelf of similar design that uses less wood. This was volumetric but also idealistic inspiration. TBX had to fit snuggly on popular shelves. We plastered mood boards everywhere.

We drew more inspiration from the way the aeronautics industry solves its design problems with minimum veneer. Everything is designed and chipped down to the absolute functional, stripped down of unnecessary weight and clutter. Cabin interior parts on airplanes are precisely machined from solid Aluminum and painted elegantly in toned colors, with accents on security handles or emergency items. Then we turned our interest to simple stuff such as meal trays, cups, flatware and silverware, minimalist objects of neatly injected polymers.

The hardware guys were over their heads finding the perfect circuit board. But I think a lot of attention was aimed at our small team to deliver tangible prototypes. The board wanted proof we had the chops to build an object that people would buy and put in their homes. To make things more difficult, without the PCB specs we didn’t really have a complete brief for our enclosure. Deadlines were tight and the expectations sky high.

As you could imagine the first few renderings were shit, unloved and uninspired boxy objects of arguable taste. But we iterated and learned fast. Really fast!

There was an inflection point at which we knew what we had to do. Some of you who are designers might look for inspiration on how to get here. I don’t know. It came unnoticed and I’m inclined to think it was the result of insane focus and relentlessness.

Prototype early and often

Andrei and Alex quickly put together more and more refined renderings. We applied for patents as we progressed. The cube design was our first major milestone. It was a very sexy half-Aluminum half-Polycarbonate rounded cube that housed both the circuit board and power supply. We drew inspiration from electric appliances of the 70s. We wanted our cube to be friendly, approachable and to mix well with the new trend in rounded designs of the new (at the time) iPhone 6, the popular again Smeg fridges and Braun deck recorders. We’d put braided cables in the box to add to the level of retro-ness.

The Cube BOX. Late 2013

We manufactured the first prototype in Romania. CNC’d the Aluminum parts in Focsani with great help from our friend Robert at Duroterm, and 3D printed the plastic parts at Atelier 13. These were expensive but turned out beautifully. When we slid the cube on the board room table we instantly got some slack and now could focus on the details.

Around the same time we learned we might miss the deadline if we insisted on including the power supply in the enclosure, due of regulatory certification lead times. This made us really unhappy but it allowed Andrei and Alex to advance the enclosure to a much slimmer profile.

We nearly — literally nearly — went in production with an improved design of the cube. We kept the Aluminum but shrunk it to a plate-shaped cooling dish. It preserved the spirit of the cube and we loved it. When the exploding view was ready and parts modeled, Alex and I took a one day trip to Frankfurt to meet with Protolabs who were going to do the injection molding for our first 50 prototypes. A wrinkle-less flight and a one hour Autobahn-no-speed-limit-drive later our German friends confirmed our design and issued the injection order.

I think our excitement went through the roof when we received our first injection molding parts from Germany.

Sure, they were molded at a 3 degree draft angle because the prototype injecting machines couldn’t go lower so it looked more like a ingot than a rounded parallelepiped. The amount of taper for molded parts perpendicular to the parting line is what’s called draft in engineering. What that means is every single plastic object you own *does not* have a perfect 90 degree angle on its facets, they’re all a just a little angled. Yes, when you learn this you can’t un-see it. And it’s jarring.

Prototype assembly parts. Summer 2014

The prototypes had different finishes, from sandblast matte to mirror polish, in both black and white.

A night or so before Alex M. and Donkey, our electronic engineering wizards, manually soldered 50 new power plugs on the opposite ends of the PCBs to fit the enclosure. These were already cast and they never seen them. Surely they fit perfectly as we put them together in the office.

Aluminum cladding plates, injection molded enclosures, sanblasting, manual assembly, first assembled unit

Pay special attention to packaging

Tamina, a zagging graphic designer who joined us later, was in charge of designing the packaging and the project was advancing well. The brief was to design a premium package, taking cues from the fashion industry but with some budget and environmental constraints. When researching we looked at hundreds of consumer electronics boxes and boy they were ugly! Designers of most devices thought the packaging was an afterthought. But we cared.

You may want to imagine your product on shelves of various retailers. Apple, BestBuy and Walmart have specific shelf dimensions. We designed for the Apple store, a vertical slim box that would stack nicely.

A fashion shop that manufactures upscale wooden sunglasses in the heart of Transylvania made the first boxes for us. They hadn’t seen the TBX enclosures either and we ran out of luck. They botched them, openings too narrow. We later improved this design significantly.

Prepare for the manufacturing gremlins

At the end of summer of 2014 we sent a team to China to brief our new partners, and prepare manufacturing. These guys do custom manufacturing for rookies like us. Their clients are hip hardware startups and Fortune 500s.

This is the time of frozen roadmaps and signed-off designs, set blueprints and minimal wiggle room for changes. We sent two designs for evaluation: the retro-BOX and a sharper, a more modern backup version. The latter was cheaper to make and looked arguably more attractive but we’d spent a fraction of the time on designing and modeling it, so we weren’t confident enough to push it.

Among a ton of good news we were getting some bad news too. The Aluminum part was hard to manufacture and we were getting a separate supplier for it. By now it was also solely veneer. A structural change placed the red polycarbonate part between it and the circuit board and it’s cooling effect was gone. The LED didn’t have a great light guide in the median part so the light shone through it wasn’t beautifully eaven. And to finish it all off, we couldn’t source the braided cables fast enough so we had to ditch those (we later got word from our partners that this was solved, but it was already too late).

This sucked so bad a bunch of the team couldn’t get sleep that weekend. The following Monday I may have firmly but in a very low voice told a few people: “I think we’re going with the backup plan”.

The “Backup plan” as a Photoshop render. 2014

The “backup plan”

Bogdan, a design legend and newest on our team, had been pushing for an edgier design, with sharper draft angles, that would be more descriptive of how modern our product was. He also argued roundness was a byproduct of antiquated manufacturing processes and we should avoid it. Inspired by this, Andrei designed the new enclosure, a sleek polished white Polycarbonate case with a signature inverted V-shape that hid a surface-projected LED hue. The design became the “backup plan”.

What a style departure this was.

We spent a lot of time deciding on the color of the LED. This was a fortunate situation. In the old design the LED was to follow the Bitdefender brand color, red. We weren’t happy about it because red signals danger or failure. Consistency rules would want us to use red across the mobile management apps, and that didn’t look great either.

A 3D printed model for volumetry and LED test. 2014

We settled for a RGB LED that can display any color. The hardware guys built a contraption with three transistor knobs so we can tweak the intensity of each diode on the LED. Fussing with combinations of red, green and blue for a few days we produced a teal shade similar to Robin egg blue. We wanted the effect of the soothing green metallic color of medicine so customers would feel safe and protected by BOX.

Circuit board with teal LED. 2014

The original circuit board was green. Green on PCBs is so common we asked our supplier to paint ours black and silkscreen them with some sexy Bitdefender Labs logos.

We cared about cables. I’m fairly sure our finance department doesn’t know we went for the more expensive ones. Flat, slim, black cables and sleek power supplies with mirror finish Polycarbonate.

We ordered plain black Ethernet connectors and asked specifically that they should not have those pesky blinking LEDs. Then a reset button that had the clickiness of our liking went in.

The first prototype was a 3D printed enclosure on a low resolution filament printer. It was very coarse but it looked great and allowed us to fiddle with mounting an LED and design the correct opening radius. The LED had to project a discreet halo of light on the surface where BOX was placed.

Our partner was super awesome and produced quick PVC prototypes that looked almost indistinguishable from the final production units. We used those to test further, perform market testing and send ultra-early preview units to eager journalists.

We were now about a month or so ahead of the first run. Not that we had room for error before, but we had none now.

You may have noticed that old plastic objects such as printers, light switches, airplane seats and air conditioners tend to turn beige and ugly. That’s called UV discoloration, as plastics are exposed to Sun or ordinary light — especially those FL lights. To protect against UV discoloration manufacturers often apply a special UV film, a coating that works just like your sunscreen.

Injection molding. China, fall 2014.

Our design was a perfect white piano key finish enclosure with a matte monogram “B” etched on top. A film would destroy the monogram. We tried different etching techniques with our manufacturer but none looked great.

The alternative was a special UV additive to be mixed with the Polycarbonate polymer pellets. This sounds awesome on paper. But the plastic becomes brittle if mixed in wrong proportions with the additive. It also so subtly alters the final color. We then had less than a week to aggressively age samples in a lab, simulating many years of usual UV exposure, and declare the winning additive and mix.

We spent weeks with our manufacturer on location in Guangdong, China, to perfect the enclosure. As the injected plastic cooled it shrank and deformed.
Sometimes shrinkage marks would only become apparent some 24h later after we accepted some random sample that looked good hours after injection.

Many times our partner’s engineers would shrug endlessly, saying “We don’t really understand what you think is wrong with this sample but we’ll go back and do it again”. Long, painful minutes later, in came engineers with trays of assorted batches of enclosures for inspection, each better and shinier than the ones before. It had to be perfect. But we were in good hands.

First production line unit. 2014

I left Shenzhen on December 1st 2014, holding the first ever Bitdefender BOX unit complete. It would be another couple of months before our first customers would eagerly have BOX delivered at their doorsteps.

PCMag would unbox it in a Vine in New York in early March and praise it for its elegant design. TIME would compare it to Batman, the puck that protects all of Gotham City, and prestigious outlets like WSJ, NYT and many others would chip in accolades, always referring to the build quality, size and aesthetics.

In hindsight, this arduous but rewarding design process turned attention from the true innovation of Bitdefender BOX, the guardian of all internet connected devices, and had people talking about its sleek design. I think we nailed it.

Footnotes:

The medical LED color: Green first appeared in a San Francisco hospital in 1914. Harry Sherman, an American surgeon, found traditional whites too bright, and the glare (especially with new lighting systems) reduced his ability to discriminate anatomical features under scrutiny. Using colour theory, he developed a “spinach green” environment, as the colour complement to hemoglobin red and created an entirely green operating theatre, complete with green walls, floors, sheets and towels. He discovered that his eyes could rest on the details and texture of the wound without competing with “extraneous light.”1 Several other surgeons followed this direction in the 1910s and 1920s. — http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2742127/