Embedding Android into Industrial Equipment

Embedded Android hardware and other IoT electronics are becoming more prevalent in traditional machines; turning traditional machines into smart devices.  A smart device is a product that can communicate information to and from the internet directly or indirectly (like through Bluetooth).  That means a person or computer can control the device and receive data from the device remotely.  A simple and early example of this is embedding a temperature sensor and internet connectivity into an air conditioner so it turns on/off automatically or can be monitored and controlled remotely.  A more complex example is embedding different sensors into parts of farm equipment for preventative insights into upcoming mechanical failures.

The list of examples goes on.  Traditional devices from refrigerators to electric meters to exercise equipment are all undergoing a renaissance thanks to small, low power electronic systems powered by Android or other RTOS operating systems.  There are many benefits to making devices ‘smart’.  One major benefit is the ability to monitor devices and their surrounding environments remotely.  This saves labor cost and alerts companies about problems more quickly or in advance of the problem happening.

Recently Hatch was tasked with redesigning a custom Android device for use in a freezer.  This device was originally designed for external use.  Embedding the custom Android device in a freezer comes with new challenges.  Challenges exist with integrating any new electronics into an existing device.  If nothing else the challenge is where to position the device, but usually these challenges extend much further.

In the case of embedding an Android device into a freezer the initial key considerations were how to avoid high temperature and weak signal strength.  The location of the Android device ideally has a room temperature and does not block the signal.  Except for inside the freezer, other parts of the freezer are subject to higher temperatures coming from the motor that drives the cooling function.  Freezers are built with insulation and metal materials which, in addition to restricting air circulation, decrease or block cellular signal strength.

Normal operating temperature of electronics is 0-70 degrees Celsius (32-158 degrees Fahrenheit).  Automotive and military grade electronics have a wider range, but those electronics also have higher costs, which wouldn’t work for this project.  In normal room temperatures around 21 degrees Celsius (70 degrees Fahrenheit), Android electronics, primarily the CPU or other ICs, regularly reach 50-55 degrees.  In a 50 degree Celsius environment the operating temperature will easily exceed 70 degrees Celsius.  So the first challenge is finding a place where the baseline temperature won’t get too high.

The rugged construction of a freezer will often impact the quality of signal strength.  To ensure a high quality cell signal, it’s necessary to put the Android device inside the freezer and test whether there’s any signal blockage.  A location with both good signal strength and the right temperature may require a custom electronics design to fit properly.

Other electronics changes should be taken into consideration when making the custom design.  Freezers use a higher voltage than a typical Android device uses, so an internal power adapter is necessary when power goes from the freezer to the Android device.  The physical connections used by the freezer are also different from a normal wall or USB plug.

Temperature, signal strength, design, interfaces, and components are all important factors that go into creating custom embedded Android hardware that go inside any industrial device.  Each industrial device will come with its own set of challenges.  More obvious challenges we can foresee and design around.  Others become clear through proper testing.  Like any custom project, getting the best result comes from taking the first step, testing, finding problems, and fixing them.

Pros and Cons of a Custom Case for your Android Device

Different companies have different reasons for making a custom Android device.  For some companies the case design isn’t one of those reasons.  In this situation is there actually a reason to make a new case rather than using one that already exists?

A little background about using an existing case design.  For the most part mass market Android devices are commodities, almost by definition.  The technology, interface, and design of products with similar specs are fairly similar.  It’s tough for white label brands to distinguish their products from other white label brands.  With commodity products one company will supply a case, another company will supply the pcba, and other components, like screens, cameras, and batteries, come from their respective suppliers.  The case, pcba, and other components end up in an assembly factory where they become a final product.

Companies that don’t need a custom case design have other reasons for making a custom Android product.  Other reasons include having a more predictable and transparent supply chain or to make customizations to the firmware and/or electronics.  When a custom case design isn’t needed, it’s possible to build the product using an existing, generic case from a mass market case supplier.

Mold used for making cases

Benefits of Using an Existing Mold

The arguments for using an existing case are clear and valid.  Using an existing case design saves the cost of making a new one.  Using an existing case allows for faster development time since it’s not necessary to go through prototyping, manufacturing, testing, and modification processes.  Product feedback from initial mass productions is also a good way to learn more about what customizations could be made to a caThe arguments for using an existing case are clear and valid.  Using an existing case design saves the cost of making a new one.  Using an existing case allows for faster development time since it’s not necessary to go through prototyping, manufacturing, testing, and modification processes.  Product feedback from initial mass production(s) is also a good way to learn more about what customizations could be made to a case in the future.  That way when the time comes, the investment of time and money in a custom case design has less risk.  Faster development, lower cost, and education are strong arguments for using an existing case in the early stages of a new product.

Benefits of Making your own Mold

Once there’s stable demand for a new product, with regular orders coming in, it’s important to have an equally stable supply chain.  This is where the value of having your own case becomes more evident.  There are certain risks that come from sourcing a case from a third party supplier.  Firstly if the company which makes the case goes out of business it will be difficult, if not impossible, to continue sourcing the same case.  Knowledge of their closure may not be known until it’s time to make a new order, at which point it’ll become necessary to source a new case and most likely redo the electronics design.

Another risk is that, since other companies are buying the same case from the same supplier, the mold gets broken.  This happens over time when molds are used often.  Molds have different quality levels.  Mass production molds usually have an expected production output of 100k – 500k, depending on the material used in the mold.  If the case is popular and many customers are buying it the case supplier will usually fix the original mold or make a new one.  If demand for that case has waned, the supplier may decide it’s not economically viable to continue producing that case.  There’s also a small risk that a large client makes a deal with the supplier to give them exclusive rights to that case.  In this case the supplier won’t be able to sell the case to other customers.

Generic tablet case


For faster, lower cost development, using an existing case, assuming that’s an option, has clear upsides.  As order volume increases a company should look into making their own case to improve supply chain reliability.  With higher volume orders, the cost of making a custom case becomes less of a risk as it reliably gets amortized into more units.

Simple Tools for Successful Custom Android Development

Developing a custom Android device starts with a concept.  From that concept a journey begins that has no end.  Along that journey the concept turns into a plan.  That plan turns into a history as progress happens.  Documentation of the plan, changes to the plan, and lessons learned as the plan unfolds creates the foundation of a successful project.  Engineering optimizations, design changes, and new technology are some of the factors that cause a product to evolve over time.

This article goes over two key documents, a Spec Sheet/BOM and a testing feedback list, that every product development team should use.  Luckily these documents are simple to create and easy to maintain.  The key is knowing what information goes in these documents.

Spec Sheet

Spec Sheet / BOM

In the case of an Android device the Spec Sheet should include, at the very least, the details of key components of the product.  These include the CPU, memory, screen (size and resolution), camera(s), wireless specs (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, mobile bands, NFC, and others that may be required), battery, touch panel, and any special electronics or firmware requirements.  A basic Spec Sheet includes the generic specs of each component.  For example ‘6GB DDR’.  A more mature Spec Sheet will also include the specific part number.  For example ‘K4EBE304ED-EGCG’.  At this point the Spec Sheet turns into a materials list, also known as a BOM (Bill of Materials).

When a new custom Android development project initially kicks off, defining the broad specs of the product, like in the ‘basic’ example above, is the first step from concept to plan.  The broad specs of the hardware, what we call ‘product architecture’, come from understanding the performance needs of the product’s use case.  This topic could go into more detail, but that’s not necessary for this article.

Once the basic architecture of the product is roughly defined there are two ways forward.  One option is to evaluate individual components in other products.  For example if LCD screen color tone really matters to a product then the customer may want to evaluate samples of different screens to find the best match.  If there’s not one specific element of the product that has a special requirement then Hatch would select components based on quality, sourcing reliability, and cost (in that order) to build an initial working prototype.  Either of these approaches are acceptable.  Choosing the right approach just depends on the circumstances surrounding the specific project.

As the components are decided on, the Spec Sheet matures into the BOM.  The BOM includes defining the final specs and specific part numbers of all the components.  For example, initial specs may call for a 13 mp camera, but it turns out that the product only needs a 8 mp camera.  To avoid paying for extraneous technology the specs will change to 8 mp.  The opposite happens if the initial specs are too low.

Going through product development from concept to prototype to trial production and finally mass production generally causes changes to specs.  The BOM evolves during this process.  Once final parts are decided upon, the BOM freezes.  At the point of mass production the components can’t change as most (read: all) products get a certification like FCC, CE, etc.  Mass production products must match the certified samples.  After multiple mass productions (or maybe just one), a customer may want to release a new version of the product.  The BOM gets updated again.  A ‘live’ Spec Sheet and BOM that show the current device details are key documents in managing the ongoing evolution of a product.

Feedback List

Testing Feedback List

Just like with the Spec Sheet, early iterations of a new product will have untold amounts of problems.  Usually these are small issues that arise from using new hardware or custom Android firmware that, once identified, can be fixed.  As the issues come up they must get recorded in a Testing Feedback List.  Over time this list gets longer as new issues come to light.

Recording feedback becomes useful because a lot of the issues are unique to the specific custom Android product.  Hatch uses a combination of standard quality control protocols and device specific quality control protocols to our custom Android products.  Feedback recorded in the Testing Feedback List becomes the basis for a bespoke quality control protocol to ensure proper functionality of the unique device.

At the beginning of a new custom Android project the customer will include a list of custom firmware requirements in the Spec Sheet.  These requirements serve as the starting point for the product specific quality control protocol.  Additional observations recorded in the Testing Feedback List build on the initial custom requirements.  Each custom Android product has its own idiosyncrasies.  Ideally an Android product supplier knows the normal things to check for with a normal Android product.  This makes the bespoke quality control protocol a very powerful tool in testing for and ensuring product quality.


Both the Spec Sheet/BOM and Testing Feedback List are simple, non-technical documents that your manufacturing partner should maintain in order to provide consistent and high quality products.

Avoiding & Resolving Custom Android Manufacturer Problems

Trying to find Mr (or Ms or Mx😋) ‘Right’ to handle development and production of your custom Android product?  What are you looking for in your manufacturing partner?  A smile?  Cheap price?  A yes-man?  People with more experience buying from overseas suppliers would say no to all, but no one starts with experience (unless you’ve been reading a lot of this blog).  Assume you find yourself in bed with the wrong partner.  Things started out the way you want, but when it’s time for the supplier to deliver the nightmare begins.  Something bad happens, you feel helpless and scared since you’re half the world away as Mx. ‘Right’ runs away with your heart, money, and time.  China’s manufacturing industry has grown on the backs of hard working people, not a reliable legal system. Don’t expect it to help.  Almost everyone buying from China faces problems with suppliers at some point. 

There are endless ways of getting hurt by Chinese suppliers.  Thinking about them is reminiscent of the question ‘how many ways can someone die’.  This article highlights three of those situations that make decent case studies to learn from.  The first covers a problem that Hatch had with a supplier.  The other two examples come from companies that reached out to Hatch as a result of the problems they were having with their suppliers.

Fake Certification

Around 2012, when Hatch was producing high volume mass market Android tablets that ended up in large retailers, we had a supplier of power supplies (the device used to charge a tablet) that claimed to have UL certified chargers, which our client required.  The price for UL certified charger is higher than the equivalent with no certification.  An existing power supply supplier said they had UL certified chargers (at a higher cost).  After checking scans of certification documentsthey provided, we made the purchase. In hindsight we should have called the company shown on the UL site to confirm the power suppliers came from them.  Our customer was more vigilant about this than we were and pointed out, after the tablets had already arrived in the US, that the label of the power supplies we bundled with the tablets didn’t perfectly match the ones shown on the UL site.  The cost to repurchase power supplies, ship them to the US, and repack 10k tablets exceeded $165,000 ($200k+ at present value).  Money that came right out of Hatch’s bottom line.

When the problem was brought up with the supplier they made up excuses and then stopped communicating.  To protect ourselves we had a signed written agreement with the supplier saying that if the chargers weren’t UL certified they would be responsible for all related costs.  Multiple lawyers said that the contract wasn’t worth anything and we’d be wasting money hiring them.

A few lessons came from this. Firstly, we should have done more due diligence on the authenticity of the power supplies.  Secondly, if we wanted any shot of legal protection then we should have let a Chinese lawyer handle that process from the beginning, rather than doing the contracts internally.  Ultimately Hatch paid dearly for getting cheated (and Hatch’s owner had many sleepless nights).

Deception and Bad Quality

An early stage startup, pseudonym ‘Orange’, contacted Hatch about their custom Android project.  The project was a good match, but their volume wasn’t enough to start working with Hatch.  Orange found another supplier who agreed to the volume they wanted.  Orange paid the supplier a deposit.  When the time came to start production the supplier said they wouldn’t return any of the deposit until Orange shipped a higher quantity than they had agreed to.  Coincidentally it was the same quantity that Hatch had required in the first place.  The customer was stuck.  Orange could either lose a year of development and their deposit or figure out how to get more money to start mass production.  They found the money, started shipping products, and received the first batch with a 20% defect rate.  Unable to rectify the situation with the supplier, who still had their full $50k deposit in hand, Orange was in desperate need of help.  They reached out to Hatch again.

Although fixing situations like this falls outside of Hatch’s typical service offering, the owners of Orange were great people and we wanted to help them.  Before accepting the task we reached out to the supplier, explaining that we’re the new China representative for the client and want to figure out the problem.  We went in with an open mind, not with hostility or accusations.  As long as the supplier was responsive and willing to cooperate we believed in the chance for success.  Our investigation showed that the product had a few problems. The most glaring was that they were using low quality batteries.  We worked with them to replace the batteries on the next production run (which was already produced, but not shipped), testing and approved samples, and convinced the supplier to replace the battery (at their expense) for 2500 pcs. At the same time we redeveloped the product for Orange, making improvements based on feedback from Orange, so they could work with Hatch moving forward.  The redevelopment went quickly since we could use the existing product as a foundation.

In this case the supplier wasn’t a complete scam.  It seems they just didn’t know what they wIn this case the supplier wasn’t a complete scam.  It seems they just didn’t know what they were doing and instead of taking responsibility for that they put the onus on the customer to make up for their faults.  Orange was in a tough position because their initial volume was 2k pcs and not too many companies would be interested in taking a custom Android project of that size.  The owners of Orange are good people and took everything the supplier told them at face value, rather than digging deeper with their own due diligence (similar to the mistake Hatch made many years prior with the power supplies).

Supplier Goes Out of Business and Disappears

A company, pseudonym ‘Palm’, started developing a product with their supplier about 3-4 years ago.  The product was successfully developed.  Usually with custom Android development the client commits to a higher volume than they want to ship on the first production.  The client pays a deposit on the full quantity, but only pays in full for the units as they ship out.  This is a good idea for both the client and supplier when done properly.  The first mass production exposes hidden issues or brings small optimizations to light that didn’t come up during trial production.  It’s usually possible to implement improvements for the next mass production run.  After starting mass production the supplier said they need full payment for the whole order quantity (meaning the ones that hadn’t yet shipped).  Palm wanted to maintain a positive relationship and agreed to pay.  The supplier then said that their business was having trouble and asked Palm for a loan.  Palm wanted to help.  They made the loan.  The supplier disappeared.

When Palm recently reached out to Hatch they couldn’t resist explaining their situation, although their intention was just to find a new supplier.  Hearing about their plight was enough to make Hatch want to help resolve the problems with their old supplier, even if that means it takes longer to ship out our first order with them.  We’re following up with the old supplier, but unlike Orange, Palm’s supplier is clearly scamming Palm and doesn’t have any intention to rectify the situation.

Situations like this are tough to deal with, especially as China has been closed off since the pandemic started.  Once a client starts transferring funds to an immoral or incapable supplier, and has no way to visit that supplier, it’s easy for a supplier to ignore them.  Clearly this is not the way business should be done, but bad people don’t think about the right way to do things, they think about what they can get away with doing.

In retrospect the client should have done more to find help once the supplier asked for full payment in advance.  That’s a major warning sign.  Asking for more money on top of that made matters worse.  Unless there’s a long term personal relationship in place that should never have been considered from a business perspective.

Avoiding Nightmares

Thorough and proper due diligence will reduce risk  Ask for references.  Not customary in normal Chinese business, but you’re not looking for the normal Chinese supplier.  Make sure it’s a foreign customer.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions.  Hopefully the supplier has done such great work for them that they’re happy to help the supplier.

Have the supplier do tasks, like research different product architectures.  Do they respond on time?  Have they made any mistakes?  Mistakes are fine, in fact they’re useful to have happened in the beginning, because they often happen during a development process.  The concern isn’t about making mistakes, it’s whether the mistakes were identified and corrected or not handled the right way.

Does the supplier ask the right questions?  Everyday of development brings countless questions.  Asking insightful questions at the beginning gives you a chance to see that they care about a successful result, not just getting your order.  More questions early also means less headaches at the end.

Resolving Hardware Problems After the Warranty Period

Most companies buying custom Android hardware or mass market (retail) Android products rely on their manufacturing partner for hardware knowledge or, at least, after sales hardware or components.  The industry standard duration of manufacturer warranties is 12 months from shipping or date of arrival (be sure to clarify this with your supplier!).  It’s common for brands to provide warranties that eclipse the time frame provided by their manufacturers.  When their supplier’s one year warranty ends, how do these companies deal with servicing hardware problems?  Even during the warranty period the question of dealing with defects is complicated.

In the case of a custom Android product used for business or commercial applications the brand is responsible for maintaining hardware in perpetuity.  Hatch’s clients typically make money from a revenue generating service delivered by Android hardware rather than selling hardware for a profit. The brand needs to maintain the product for longer than that.  With retail Android brands, end customers usually get a 12 month warranty from the date of purchase.  There could easily be 5-6 months between shipping from China and when a customer buys the product.

Get spare units to cover expected defects with each order.  1-3% is typical.  Send out new units to clients to replace the defects.  Get back old ones from the clients, then swap parts as more come in (hopefully it’s not always the same part that breaks).  Alternatively get spare unassembled components from the supplier, if that’s a better option.  Usually it isn’t though.  Keep a record of the key components from each production that can vary by production run like screen, touch panel, and camera.  Sometimes suppliers use components from different manufacturers.  Label products by production run so it’s clear which production the defects came from.  When components change the drivers, and thus firmware, will be different.  Sometimes components change to save money, other times it’s because the originals aren’t available anymore.  If it’s impossible to determine which part to use when fixing, usually firmware can support multiple drivers.  Supplier support is necessary to get that done.  Then update the firmware to use the one with all the drivers.

When vetting suppliers look for those with a long term vision and integrity.  This has massive value in that the products are usually better quality and the supplier has more to lose if they’re not better quality.  Try to judge these intangible traits during initial communication and during the sampling process.  Choosing a supplier isn’t only about cost as the commercial relationship has many angles.  Cleaning up the mess of the wrong supplier will cost much more in ongoing fees than the lower upfront hardware cost saves.  If the supplier stands behind their word, they’ll honor their responsibility or look for middle ground solutions with the client.

Dealing with product repair in-house increases turnaround speed and usually lowers cost compared with sending the product back to China for repair even if labor cost is high.  Without getting into too much detail it’s usually difficult to import defective products to China.  This is as much a country issue as a supplier issue.  China makes it much easier to export than import products.  Defects usually are blocked at customs or charged a very high tax.  Combining the cost of not having the product, tax, and shipping usually makes shipping products back to China economically disadvantageous.

The keys to handling after sales service are finding the right supplier (not easy, usually takes costly trial and error), learning how to fix products locally, having the parts available to fix the products, and knowing which parts to use in each product.

Custom Android Hardware- How to Approach the Unknown

Developing new products takes creativity.  Creativity combined with experience makes that creativity more productive.  The more experienced the product creator, the more efficiently their product is made.  People who are trying something for the first time, whether making a custom Android device or learning to ride a bike, go through a process of learning what works and what doesn’t.  In the world of custom Android hardware development we are routinely faced with new requirements, since each project is different.  The experience we gain from past projects gets applied to new projects, but the requirements are rarely the same.  Just like riding a bicycle isn’t the same as riding a unicycle, but the bicycle experience helps with learning how to ride the unicycle.

When starting a new project we usually have some learning to do.  Experience from previous projects sometimes provides insight into new challenges, but rarely are custom requirements the same.  More importantly than having specific product development knowledge is knowing how to find the best solutions.  Take for example a project where the client requests a very bright screen that remains power on for extended periods of time.  We know from other projects that bright screens require more electricity.  This means electric component changes are necessary to the main PCBA in order to supply more electricity to the screen.  We also know that 1) a bright screen, and 2) running for an extended period of time increases heat generation.  Planning for this early is the value of experience.

Based on the things we know about screen brightness and extended run time, we make the initial design to the best of our ability.  At the same time we fully expect surprises, that we didn’t account for, to come to light through initial prototyping.  Expectating to learn new things is one of the key lessons that isn’t specific to a product, but to a process.  No one will ever foresee all the problems of a new product, but having a process in place to catch those problems is often the fastest way to find a solution.

With the intention of finding problems, we want to set up early prototyping in a flexible manner, allowing for quick changes.  For example remove the components that control electricity flow to the screen from the Android tablet PCBA.  Instead, use a small add-on board, that’s low cost and easy to customize, in order to test different specifications.  We’d also want to hold off on finalizing case design, knowing that we’ll need to test different screens and back lights before finding the right one, and each screen has slightly different dimensions.

The key idea is to keep initial prototyping as flexible as possible.  Test as much as possible.  As testing reveals what works (and what doesn’t work) lock in specifications.  This same process may happen in parallel for several parts of a product.  Once all the unknowns start to become clear it’s time to make a more formal prototype, one in which the specifications are not flexible, and could feasibly get mass produced.  Testing still goes on at this stage to check for problems that could emerge from the integration of all these unknowns.

Many custom Android products, and new electronics in general, go through a long evolution from concept to reliable mass market product.  Often the first mass production results in more of a functioning concept than a final product, and it could take a few rounds of mass production to address all the surprises that arise.  This doesn’t mean a first generation product is bad, just that the next generations are better.  Like in any artistic process there’s never a real end point, but a point at which the creators agree a product is ready for release.

Knowing that product development is constantly evolving, staying as flexible as possible for as long as possible is the ideal way to achieve the best result in the shortest amount of time.

Smart Development: Testing your Custom Android Device Early

There’s a saying about testing products that applies to all mass manufacturing, but maybe even more true for electronics and custom Android hardware in particular.  The saying goes like this: a problem with a product costs 10 times more to fix at each subsequent step of the development or manufacturing process.

This adage holds true during the earlier stages of development, and the number is probably much higher as the product gets closer to the customer.  In the beginning of a custom Android development we work with low quantity prototypes.  Prototype PCBs, prototype casing, and single digit volume of peripherals such as cameras, screens, etc.  Even packaging for individual units and shipping cartons go through a sample review process.

It costs money and time to get a round of prototypes done.  Low to mid thousands of US dollars and 3-5 weeks are standard.  Problems that are discovered at this point don’t necessarily require a new round of prototypes, although they might.  Most hardware problems identified at this point are solved by making manual adjustments to the electronics or casing.  For example resolving issues with the electronics may be done by replacing components or adding small PCBAs, depending on the nature of the problem.  A case that doesn’t fit well can be cut by hand or a specific part of the case can be 3D printed with an updated design.  These kinds of changes are relatively quick and low cost.

Electronics often go through multiple rounds of manual changes until reaching a satisfactory resolution.  Making changes manually allows us to check different solutions in a quick and low cost manner.  Once a solution is found, the engineers implement it into the design.  This way it’s not necessary to go through new rounds of prototypes to test engineering changes until there’s reliability in the result.

After the prototype stage comes trial production.  Trial production is a small pre-mass production run of 50-500 units.  Quantity depends on many factors, mainly how many units the customer wants to test in the wild and unit cost.  Hopefully only software related problems (that can be updated with an OTA solution) appear at this stage.  Keeping the trial production quantity low reduces the cost impact of a hardware related problem.  It generally takes 4-7 weeks to prepare and assemble a trial production; waiting for parts to arrive represents about 4 weeks of that.  The devices from trial production go to labs for certification testing, undergo age and stress testing.  Others go to real world users, as they may come across problems that weren’t discovered by people who designed the product.  Sometimes problems come to light at this stage; why there’s a trial production stage to begin with.  The time cost and financial cost of a trial production run outweighs those costs at the prototype stage by at least 10 times.  Finding as many problems as possible is the goal.  A manufacturer or brand only benefits by raising issues at this point.  Finding problems early is a question of digging for gold, not searching for fault, and should be applauded.  The cost savings of finding problems now amount to gold compared with finding problems at the next step.

After trial production the stakes get even higher.  At this point brands usually have plans for distributing the goods to their customers. The amount of money tied up in a mass production quantity exceeds all previous stages.  The amount of time invested to produce the products also exceeds previous stages.  There should be no design problems since products have already gone through a design stage, prototype stage, trial production, and multiple revision stages.  On the initial production run small problems are likely.  Products always get better over time, but the ‘problems’ at this point should be more like optimizations rather than issues that impede proper usability.  If something major goes wrong at this stage the brand, manufacturer, or both look bad.  Costs include the time and money to go through mass production, and reputation of the brand.  Still it’s better to catch a problem now than at the final stage.

The final stage is when the overseas brand or their customer receives the product.  Now there’s no turning back.  Shipping products back to China incurs a high (and for better or worse sometimes arbitrary) import tax.  Products considered ‘used’ aren’t even allowed back usually.  That means any problems which appear once the goods have landed need attention in the destination country, where assembly know-how and infrastructure are usually limited.  In many situations it costs more to fix the goods than buying them again.  The cost of reputation repair has no limit.

I remember on the first order I had for a retail customer, they made a late request which was implemented unsuccessfully.  Back in 2005 this customer ordered CD players.  They wanted packaging to hang on a peg.  Then they requested packaging to also stand on a shelf.  I had just visited the factory and checked the finished products (for the first time ever).  I checked a sample and the packaging stood up.  I approved it.  Goods arrived and the customer set up the products in their hundreds of locations.  A week or two later they said the packaging didn’t stand up sturdily enough and kept getting knocked down.  I offered to design a retail display to hold up the packaging.  They decided to return the full 2500 pc order.  I had little choice in the matter and took back the products.  Lesson, have your customers check the products as early as possible.  It’s worth delaying a shipment to avoid a recall.

Live and learn.  Hope this lesson helps you at some point. 🙂

Using Hardware Components to Remotely Monitor Product Quality

Whenever possible I try to write about actual topics that come up during the course of Hatch’s normal business activities.  Editorials are great (for whatever my opinion is worth), but real-life experiences, especially innovations, share useful and tangible value.  This month, together with our client, Hatch came up with an innovative solution for remotely detecting faulty hardware that, until now, went unnoticed without the client making an on-site inspection.  The specific case we’ll summarize involves the screen of a product.  The concept and solution we came up with applies to other components as well.

The product is a custom Android Wi-Fi tablet that’s used as an advertising display.  Multiple displays get installed in hundreds of locations.  Following installation, the company manages them from a backend portal.  Employees who work at the locations have no relationship with the display provider.  They also have no motivation or easy way to report problems.  After a display runs non-stop day after day for several years there have been cases where the screens stop functioning properly.  Hatch was tasked with figuring out potential causes of the problem without getting back any of the defective samples to analyze.

We identified three potential sources for the problem:

  1. Failure of screen’s backlight.
  2. Screen burnt out.
  3. Damage to regions of the screen.

If the screen’s backlight stops working or the screen burns out, the voltage going to those components changes.  With that in mind, we conceptualized a strategy for ICs in the device to read anomalies in the electrical current to detect problems.  Creative electrical engineering combined with related modifications to the device firmware now triggers a notification when the backlight or screen fails in entirety.  Regional screen problems may or may not affect the electrical current.  Most likely not, but detecting the other issues still improves the situation.

Due to the nature of an advertising display screen performance is critical.  With an automatic self-assessment solution in place, Hatch’s customers can get information about certain screen problems in real-time.

Hatch has been working with this customer for over 5 years.  During that time we’ve implemented several electronics and firmware iterations to achieve ongoing product improvement.  Custom Android products, unlike commodity electronics, often get used in commercial or industrial applications.  While the core hardware requirements don’t change as often as retail products, opportunities for optimization appear over time.  Working with a long term development and manufacturing partner, Hatch’s clients leverage our intimate knowledge of their product to implement continuous improvements.  This results in performance benefits that add intangible value to our clients’ businesses.

Entering into a custom Android hardware partnership extends deeper than just supplying a product.  A dedicated and capable supplier grows with their client, not just by providing hardware, but by empowering the client to become more successful as a result of Hatch’s dedication to them.

How to Decide Whether Price is a Good Value

How to value custom Android hardware

I like having an expectation of price when buying something.  You probably do, too.  An expectation makes judging value easier.  Human nature has something to do with this.  It’s clear if some products are priced fairly or not.  For example commodities like gasoline or bananas.  Quality of common grades of gas or breeds of bananas don’t vary greatly between different sellers.  Therefore pricing shouldn’t vary greatly either.  Many products we routinely buy, whether for personal or business use, fall into this category for the most part.

The closer a product gets to the customer the more potential for adding value.  This seems to apply universally, from custom Android projects to dinner.  On one end of the food spectrum is something simple, cheap, and low quality, but edible, like instant noodles.  On the other end is a culinary experience of globally sourced ingredients, prepared to the exact specification of a culinary artist, and served in a majestic environment.  Both fight hunger, albeit are priced very differently.

What justifies the price difference beyond the cost of ingredients?  In the example given above it’s the ambiance, presentation of the food, and taste.  The value customers feel from a high end restaurant experience far exceeds the cost of the actual food.  Buying products follows the same logic.  A mass produced product that is similar to many other products has little added value.  For example, a pair of generic headphones usually costs only slightly more than the seller paid for it themselves.  Customers pay more for branded products, even those that are very similar to an unbranded product.  The higher price comes from the reliability, quality, and sometimes prestige the brand represents.

Not all customers value things the same way.  For some the brand matters, for others they just want the commodity.  The value a custom product manufacturer brings differs from the value a commodity commodity device seller provides.  The custom device manufacturer needs to spend more resources developing the custom device even though the volume is lower for a custom device than a mass market device.  Custom Android device buyers often have niche use cases that deliver a higher value to the end user as well.  More work goes into making a custom product.  That means the product must deliver a higher value to the end user than a commodity product; the same way a dining experience delivers a higher value than instant noodles.

A custom Android tablet.

Most of Hatch’s customers use their custom Android products for business applications.  Their products offer a high value to these businesses and require a manufacturing partner that offers an equally high level of service and knowledge.  If a commodity product breaks the customer simply exchanges it at the retailer.  If a business product breaks that means a company is losing money by not having it work.  Also fixing the problem costs more than exchanging a product at a retailer.  It usually requires a technician to deal with the problem.   Business buyers should look at commodity costs as a clear point of reference.  The art of determining a fair price for the added value comes from quantifying a supplier’s capabilities on one side; and the cost of something going wrong with the project on the other side.

“No one got fired for hiring IBM” is a saying which means that IBM has such a good reputation that an employee would never get fired for hiring them, even if a problem arises.  Many highly skilled companies are small and don’t have the reputation of large competitors.  When evaluating a partner for a custom project, it’s necessary to understand exactly what additional value the partner will bring.  To do this, find out what kind of projects the partner has worked on before.  Ask for referrals from past clients.  Take into consideration how quickly and precisely the partner communicates.  If they offer sensible and clear answers from the beginning that’s a good sign.  If not then don’t expect them to start after paying the deposit.

Up front due diligence requires digging into the details of how businesses operate.  Spending time to get comfortable with a potential partner increases the chances of success for your project.

Tips for a Speedy Custom Android Development

Making a custom product takes time.  Usually, more time than our customers realize as there are never less details, and often more, during a development process.  But through experience we learn optimization techniques that have a big impact.  Below are some concepts you can apply for an efficient, yet reliable development process.

The App

When building a custom Android device, the key to quick development is identifying which parts of the product exist already.  That way you start testing your app on existing devices at an early stage, rather than waiting for your custom hardware.  Start by finding a sample of an existing product which uses the same CPU and Android version as your custom product, these are the foundation of an Android product.  While the existing product and your custom product won’t be exactly the same, the existing product can be used to start testing the basic functionality of your app.  Starting this process early saves time and generally results in a better app.

Special Hardware

To continue with efficient development, it’s necessary to know which components matter and aren’t standard.  Consider the purpose and focus of the product.  This determines what other components are important.  For example, if taking photos or video using a wide-angle camera lens is part of the device requirements, try to get samples of different cameras to test with the chosen CPU to make sure the camera quality is good enough.  We’ve seen the same camera provide different results with different CPUs (better results happened on CPUs with integrated ISP).  Ultimately this motivated a change in the device CPU because the camera quality was such an important feature of the product.

During this stage the hardware doesn’t need any case as the point is quick compatibility testing of the hardware.


Basic concept is to start prototyping as early as possible.  It’s possible to prototype even before the electronics are ready.  Hatch’s customers usually design the exterior of their product case with an industrial designer (Hatch does the inside, mechanical engineering, part).  Previously we had a customer approve a prototype and then a few months later change their mind regarding part of the external design.  The mass production tooling was already done at that point, so the change ended up costing additional time and money.

Even if the custom Android electronics aren’t done, if case design is very important to a customer, it’s possible to quickly get a simple PCB made with just case fittings.  For example, a blank PCB with just a USB, earphone, and charging port, rather than all the electronics components, so the customer can test from purely a mechanical and design standpoint.  If that prototype works the same one can be used once the full electronics are done.