A big milestone has been achieved.
We’ve been working hard to build the first connected sensor for equestrian sports and so far it’s been an incredible adventure. We were quite silent when we went through the many difficulties we faced but the community behind Equisense Motion has been supporting us since the beginning. For the people following us, it’s no surprise that we are behind schedule so you can be sure that this news is also a big relief for us at Equisense! All we have to say is thank you!
This article is about how we built the Equisense Motion as we know it today. Shipping Motion is an achievement that may sound like the end of the trip but the product is evolving every day.
Hardware is hard.
We’ve seen this all around the web. Now that we’ve been through so many issues, we can illustrate this sentence.
Undertaking challenges one after the other
Building and releasing a product need a lot of attention and rigor on tons of different things. Here is an interesting quote from an incredible article about Andy Rubin (father of Android) on Wired:
It’s easier than ever to build these kinds of smart — or at least smartish — devices. Sensors and CPUs are cheap, and Chinese manufacturers are eager to work with small-batch startups. But “easier than ever” still translates to “incredibly difficult”. That’s because there’s a huge difference between building a prototype and mass-producing a commercial product.
That’s true for even the simplest piece of hardware. […] You’ll have to make decisions about the design as well as the software. You’ll want the whole thing to be as small as possible, and you’ll want it to run efficiently so it doesn’t drain the battery. Of course, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting the most reliable components at the best possible price.
Right now, every hardware entrepreneur must answer these questions on their own — a burden that distracts them from actually building products.
In our case, we had a prototype during the Kickstarter campaign but the difficulties had to come later. Our goal has always been to deliver a product horse riders will like using: something simple, easy to use and giving people actionable insights; that’s why we all love technology after all.
One of the first discussions we had with our partner working on electronics and mechanical design was about the electronic components. I was working on a prototype when we decided to change fundamentally the electronic architecture. Our partner learnt from previous experiences that a few components were not the best choices we could have made, mostly because of the price, so we listened carefully, decided to trust them and headed towards a newer, more efficient and cheaper design, in order to reduce the Bill Of Materials (BOM: cost of every components included in the product).
I can’t say this new design (neither the old one) is the best we can get, but it’s the best compromise between efficiency and price while completely answering customers’ needs, and that’s what we are looking for as a company.
How many different electronic components do you think we have in the Equisense Motion? (Answer below in the article ;) )
Once we had a first prototype under test, we had to iterate to resolve hardware bugs (bad components for example). Hopefully, we didn’t get into too much trouble during this phase and we had a final version of the PCB very quickly.
At first, we had a basic mechanical design that we wanted to implement for the tracker, with many requirements... We wanted the product to be waterproof. We wanted the product to be shockproof to some extent. We wanted a battery that lasts one entire day acquiring data. We wanted an LED on one side, the USB port on the other. We wanted the USB port to be easily accessible. We wanted enough screws to get a solid product and we wanted to hide these screws. We wanted the whole plastic case to be the same color. And obviously, we wanted the PCB and battery to fit into the case we designed.
Integrating all these requirements is quite difficult. As one example, think about the position of one screw if the PCB is behind: do you have to change the PCB layout or the screw position? It’s a big task to achieve and it takes obviously time to fix every problem.
In order to have all these requirements met, we had to change a little bit the first prototype: for example, the USB port is now hidden behind a rubber plastic to make it waterproof.
Both electronic engineering and DFM are relatively long phases, depending on the product complexity, but they are Non-Recurring Engineering (NRE), which means once they are over and everything is settled, production can begin. At this point, it’s very difficult to make changes on the hardware later on. We had only one third-party company working on the NRE so it wasn’t difficult to communicate early and move fast while integrating both electronics and mechanical parts. It gets a little bit more complicated to handle the production.
Pilot-Run to Mass Production
Once the NRE done, we were ready to launch a trial production run in order to test every processes to manufacture the tracker in the facilities.
Thus, we went to Hong-Kong and the Philippines where our Contract Manufacturer (CM) has a factory. The first thing we learnt is that we weren’t really aware of the many different suppliers we have for the Equisense Motion.
Let’s begin with electronics: Printed Circuit Boards (PCB) are made in China, then they come in the Philippines for SMT assembly (Surface-Mount Technology, ie. the electronic components are mounted or placed directly onto the surface of PCB). Then, plastic cases as well as rubber parts are made in China by another supplier. PCBAs (PCB with components) and plastics cases are sent to our CM in the Philippines where tests are conducted to inspect quality of the plastic and to perform functional tests on the PCBA to make sure everything is working well. Trackers are then assembled and ready to put in the beautiful packaging.
During the pilot run, the main difficulties we had to face were due to the plastic:
- Rubber color and plastic case had different colors, even if we specified the same Pantone color (a reference guide to choose color).
- Flash (molding defect): some plastic escaped from the mold during injection.
- Sink marks: sink on one rubber part.
- Marks on the plastic after injection (see below the 4 dots on the plastic).
And because we are talking about hardware, it took 2 months to resolve these issues. We had to ask for a golden sample: a plastic case meeting all our requirements.
A difficulty we weren’t really mature about is that we have 40 different components to be placed on two PCBs (that’s actually a pretty small number for an electronic product) and each component has to be ordered weeks in advance. Some of them have 12 weeks of lead time (time between order and delivery of a part) when everything goes well (think about holidays, typhoons…). Then they have to be assembled, tested and sent to us in France. All of this takes time, lead to unexpected delays so keeping a schedule in this context is very difficult.
Last but not least; Dealing with all these different logistic complications implies having a really good communication with all the suppliers. We learnt that we can’t assume our suppliers to know every little bit of what we want, even if it sounds obvious to us (the same applies the other way). Confusing situations can arise… the sooner the better.
This step was frankly new to anyone of us in the company so we started very small only to realize that we had to scale very quickly. We had many difficulties that LisaD can talk about way better than me so we’ll wait for her to share her vision ;-P.
I’ll finish with this quote from Fictiv:
Have you ever wondered how many people it took to bring that shiny new product you purchased from an idea to the actual object in your hands? It likely took the team effort of many more people than you might have imagined. Industrial design, mechanical engineering, manufacturing engineering, graphic design, packaging design, and more all come together to turn a great idea into an even better product. Fictiv
It did take a lot of people, and we actually don’t know how many… but we are very thankful to all of them.
Making important decisions in this context of uncertainty was, is and will be difficult so we are improving the product one step at a time. Our job is not completely done, important features are implemented today but many others will be integrated in the future. Be sure that we have plenty of ideas but we need to stick to the most useful features first. Do not hesitate to send us feedback at email@example.com.