This month Hatch introduces a new kind of article, one that profiles a unique architecture for Android hardware. Overtime, as we showcase more unique hardware, you may find something which serves as a better platform to test your software than a generic Android tablet.
When Hatch first started making custom Android products around 2015 most demand revolved around mainstream retail tablet and smartphone devices. As visionaries imagined new use cases and industries created new demands, modified hardware architectures gained in popularity. One of the earliest high volume use cases that evolved from a niche are point of sale (POS) devices. Now there are several engineering and manufacturing companies that exclusively focus on this category since the global demand justifies a high level of support. Same thing is true for Rugged Android tablets and phones, however the high prices of these may still justify going custom if order volume is high enough.
Modifying hardware for a specific use case is only part of what’s needed to deliver an end product. The other, and arguably more important, part is designing the software to go with the hardware. Software entails a front end app and, usually, a back end system that interacts with the app. Once stable hardware is developed for industrial or business applications it stays the same for years, however elements of the software are regularly updated to improve user experience or resolve bugs.
Hatch sees the growing popularity of niche applications for Android as a good thing for the industry and synergistic with our business model. A new generation of niche Android products make it easier for entrepreneurs to realize their vision by running tests on existing hardware. Often existing hardware can be used for prototyping and beta testing. If testing goes well using existing hardware the next step is making custom Android hardware. Below we look at a device that’s been designed to replace the traditional keyless entry system.
This Android device combines traditional systems with new technology. More powerful electronics supports new use cases, such as keyless entry using facial recognition. The facial database is stored in the device, either uploaded in a file or acquired using the camera, and recognition processing happens locally on the device in real time.
A Wiegand interface designed into the device’s motherboard connects to an external card reader. Wiegand is an older and still popular wiring protocol for connecting swipe card readers to an underlying access control system.
In addition to Wiegand there are several other interfaces including LAN (Ethernet), USB, RS-232, Power, and GPIO buttons. The RJ-45 Ethernet port can be used for PoE (power over Ethernet) or maintaining a hard-wired internet connection rather than relying on Wi-Fi. Other ports can be used for opening and closing access points mechanically or as defined by the user.
The IP65 case has been designed to withstand light rain and dust. This helps protect products exposed to rain or other outdoor conditions.
If the current architecture of the product detailed above serves your purpose better than a standard retail tablet we welcome you to use it for your initial prototype. Once you decide to make a custom version, future iterations of this product can add mobile data connectivity, body temperature sensing, or whatever customization serves your purpose best.
In this article ‘supply chain’ refers to all the contributors of components or services that go into manufacturing a finished product. More specifically, in the case of custom Android manufacturing, that means suppliers of hardware such as screens, PCBA, cameras, cases, etc. Also different specialized service providers such as electronics, mechanics, software, and assembly engineers. General services, such as logistics, which aren’t specific to Android hardware are not covered in this article.
What’s a mature supply chain?
Supply chains become mature when multiple suppliers gain expertise and compete on individual pieces of the supply chain. A supply chain consists of many different elements so when there are many companies competing in one niche of the supply chain, over time that creates optimal service and price (theoretically). For example there are hundreds of companies that design and produce plastic cases for electronics around Shenzhen. Several of them are particularly focused on designing cases specifically for Android tablets or smartphones. There are so many case suppliers and so much demand for Android device cases, some case suppliers carve a niche by specializing in tablet or smartphone cases.
This creates teams of engineers with specific retained knowledge that apply directly to making Android devices. Each case company has engineers with experience designing cases for optimal performance and manufacturing efficiency. For example an experienced mechanical engineer designs the camera slot in a way to ensure the camera easily snaps into place, blocks light from the flash, and doesn’t overheat. They know what works, and have seen many things which don’t, creating a reliable and efficient supply chain. More experienced component manufacturers working in a supply chain makes that supply chain more mature.
What’s an immature supply chain?
Supply chains are immature when there are limited suppliers with deep (or any) expertise in bringing a finished product to life. For example when developing a new product, especially taking that product from prototype to mass production, countless surprises and mistakes happen due to inexperience. It could be that the product was designed by non-Chinese engineers who choose components that are difficult to get in China, necessitating a design modification. Even for products fully designed in China, components don’t always work well together. Some materials don’t mix well together for chemical or electrical reasons. Some components come with different calibrations that require tweaking for consistency during mass production. Immature supply chains result in surprises that take time to resolve.
Production line staff at factories don’t usually understand the point of the custom modifications as it pertains to the product’s use case. Because of this sometimes small variations in workmanship have a bigger impact on product performance than the staff realize. Over time mistakes become lessons, but until that happens the supply chain is immature.
How does a supply chain become mature?
Immature supply chains become mature over time as orders of the finished product increase. For example when Android tablets first started shipping from local Shenzhen supply chains around the end of 2010 the product quality was low and unit cost was high. As demand exploded new suppliers entered the supply chain. Even with these new entrants it took a while to meet demand and have prices start to come down. Over time the profit margins decreased and maturity of the supply chain evolved. Once supply caught up with demand they needed to improve product quality and price in order to compete. Sales volume and, in turn, competition are the key forces that drive a supply chain to maturity.
The more orders suppliers produce the more opportunity they have to learn from mistakes. This drives improvement of their components and, ultimately, the finished Android tablet. As volumes of Android tablets and smartphones exploded a massive supply ecosystem came into existence. The same events take place in the creation of supply chains for lower volume products, albeit with relatively fewer participants, as demand is lower. A large company producing high volumes of a unique product will also create a mature supply chain. This happens somewhat through brute force rather than purely organic capitalism. In this case entering the supply chain is more restrictive than with a product anyone can buy since there’s only one customer who chooses the individual suppliers.
How to work with an immature supply chain
It’s necessary to work with an immature supply chain whenever creating a new product or modifying an existing one. Getting from idea to mass production means going through a learning curve. Over time production runs become more efficient by identifying and fixing problems. That’s why initial production runs should start with smaller quantities. Problems are easier and less costly to fix with lower volume.
In addition to extensive testing with low volumes, having multiple suppliers for high risk parts is also useful to hedge risk. High risk parts refers to parts that have a higher tendency to go out of production or become difficult to source. Often a component’s future availability is tough to predict. From experience, cameras and screens seem to have the highest risk in custom Android devices.
Supplier value in a mature supply chain
Once a supply chain becomes mature so do the buyers. Experienced retail buyers know what’s important to look for in a supplier. The supplier traits which matter most in a mature supply chain are quality, speed, price, and reliability. Because finished products coming from a mature supply chain are so similar to each other there’s rarely room for significant product differentiation. Strides in innovation are made in small, manufacturing related, baby steps. Any big technological innovation will not likely come from a manufacturer, at least not for Android products.
How an immature supply chain is helped by a mature supply chain
If you want to make a custom Android product your development and manufacturing partner, such as Hatch, plays a big role in leveraging mature supply chains to create custom products. Some suppliers in a mature supply chain are willing to support smaller production runs at a higher margin. By working with them Hatch leverages the experience and efficiency of the mature supply chain to reliably produce what is needed for the lower volume custom product.
Anytime a new commodity product or product category kicks off a supply chain must be created from scratch. The initial entrants do what they can to provide a ‘good enough’ early stage product, but as demand for a product grows and more companies enter into the supply chain the quality gets better. When making something custom leverage mature supply chains to gain a head start.
Whenever working with a new and immature supply chain, go slowly to find problems early. Reduce risk by thoroughly testing multiple rounds of a trial production and making clear requirements, sometimes even SOPs, for the suppliers to follow. All mature supply chains start as new and immature ones. They’re both important at different stages of a product’s lifecycle and through constant intersection help each other to grow.
One key element of a smartphone or tablet is the outer casing. The casing holds all the hardware together and its design is one of the fundamental USP’s (unique selling points) of the product. Design separates good products from great ones so spending sufficient time defining the design of the casing is important before stepping into manufacturing.
This manufacturing and development process will be different depending on the device you are designing for, be that a smartphone or a tablet. When you compare how casing molds are manufactured in these different product categories you will see some major differences. This is surprising considering how blurred the line is now between the smartphoneand thetablet. Daniel Weisbeck CMO and COO of Netbiscuits comments here about the merging of these markets.
In the tablet space the Design House (A PCBA fabricator and designer) creates PCBA designs in conjunction with the Casing Factories and other design firms who design cases. The Casing Factories will design and manufacture the cases to match the PCBA designs or will work directly with the Design House when they require entirely custom PCBA’s for a client with a specific need. These will then become privately owned molds by the client or integration company. The Casing Factories will also create various public molds based on the Design House’s PCBA designs. This allows Integration Company’s to select cases from a library of public molds to save time and money when working on new projects. The factory and the client control production.
In the smartphone market the Design House make standard PCBA layouts for smartphones that are stable and reliable. A smartphone PCBA has a lot more complexity over a basic tablet so a Design House won’t spend the time to make variations of a smartphone PCBA unless the order volume is very high. After these PCBA layouts are fabricated they are given to the Integration Company who will then design private molds to suit. It is not common for Casing Factories to create public molds for these smartphone PCBA designs, like with tablets. So the integration company controls the production and ownership of the casing mold.
It is important to realize that even though the smartphone and the tablet maybe very similar products today, they have grown from two different markets. This is why we have these differences in manufacturing. The tablet grew out of the MP3 Player market. Factories making MP3 players slowly began to produce tablets as the MP3 market died. The smartphone industry grew from the feature phone market.