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.
Design a tablet for photographers to quickly review their shots and copy photos from the camera’s memory card to a spare card.
Photographers want to quickly review photos on a clear and large screen then move images off their camera’s memory card so they can get back to taking photos again. Hatch’s client identified this unique market and turned to Hatch to manufacture a custom Android tablet tailored to serve it.
Hardware and Mechanical Requirements
No Wireless Connectivity (mobile data, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, etc)
Reference design modification to add extra SD card slot
Assistance with Industrial Design
Tooling for device case
Manufacturing process optimization
Create finished product testing procedure
Trial and Mass Productions
This project moved fairly quickly from Hatch’s end. Two months passed from kickoff to initial prototype. The customer took a few months to thoroughly test the initial prototype, which is time well spent. Another month was used to refine aspects of the firmware in parallel with producing the tooling for the tablet’s casing. Trial production took a month and then the customer needed extra time to refine and debug their app. The whole process took about 8 months, but most of this time was used for app related development and optimizations.
How it Happened
The client initially approached Hatch about working together when they first started conceptualizing the project around 2017. At that time, as a new company and concept, they couldn’t commit to Hatch’s minimum order quantity. We wished them good luck and ended the discussion. They came across another tablet supplier who said all the right things, won the business and then forced the client to place a large order (which they weren’t ready for) or lose their deposit. If everything went well that’s where the story would have ended, but after deceptive business practices the other supplier also shipped bad products and were difficult to work with. At that point the customer contacted Hatch again and asked for help with getting out of their dilemma. Typically we don’t get involved with this kind of situation, but the client seemed like good people in a bad position. We agreed to help them fix the problems and manage production for the rest of their order from the first supplier before redeveloping the product ourselves.
As the first order was coming to an end Hatch started to redevelop and improve the product. Hatch had the benefit of learning from the mistakes of the first development, which helped our development go smoothly and make the customer experience even better.
The device had several custom hardware requirements that deviated from the standard reference design, the electronics design which ‘off the shelf’ Android tablets are based on. For example, remove Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cameras, headphone jack, unnecessary apps, and increase battery size. Also Hatch needed to add a second memory card slot and make both memory cards full size SD, while the reference design calls for one MicroSD size memory card. Most of these hardware customizations also required related firmware modifications.
The results were great. A large part of the success came from the lessons learned from the first generation of the product. Our client was able to earn a reputation for higher customer satisfaction than the competition (in their niche) thanks to the great job they did with redesigning their app and the improvements Hatch made to the hardware and firmware. This allowed them to raise the retail price, helpful in offsetting the high costs of fixing problems with their first generation product.
It’s hard to predict how things go in business, but some situations create good stories when told in retrospect. Sometimes, for whatever reason, people don’t connect with potential friends/customers/whatever on the first interaction, but a relationship develops in the future. This client has turned out to be a great company to work with and Hatch provided key value to them. Often companies contact us who aren’t ready to work with Hatch when they first reach out. I try to guide them in the best direction for them rather than sell them services they’re not ready for. Hopefully my guidance or something else they did brought success. It’s always a pleasure to see companies flourish and become able to help them.
Android Devices Show Resilience Through Rapid Adaptation
Custom Android tablets are helping people push through the challenges of the Covid era. New use cases and growth in existing niches have driven innovation and demand for Android hardware.
When Covid arrived in Q1 2020 many Android manufacturing companies quickly reacted with a pessimistic outlook on business prospects for the year ahead. Key component manufacturers decreased their annual production forecasts, lowering the quantity of components produced for the whole year. Agile Chinese tablet manufacturers responded drastically. Many factories transformed their production lines to make masks, gowns, and other PPE. Engineering companies shifted attention from Android PCB design to designing digital thermometers. From one month to the next, customers went from getting price lists for tablets to price lists for medical devices and PPE from the same companies.
Covid didn’t kill economies. It halted industries. Travel, restaurants, cinemas, and many other industries have been decimated by Covid. Other industries ignited. Online education, remote working, and ecommerce/logistics, are examples of industries undergoing a renaissance with heightened user demand and investments. Many workers from the hard hit industries lost their jobs. With less disposable income people have less money to replace old phones or tablets. These were the people that industry executives thought about when reducing forecasts for component production.
What was overlooked was that if people couldn’t congregate in offices and schools then they’d need to work remotely. This created a boom in sales for Android tablets and other devices used to work or study from home.
Android’s system architecture makes it relatively easy to add different peripheral electronics to the core platform. Innovators can also quickly build apps for a wide range of use cases.
The combination of fast hardware and software development are what make Android an ideal platform for quickly adapting as the world and technology evolve.
Android products have become more than a mobile phone or tablet for the consumer market, where several global brands sell fairly similar products. The Android manufacturing ecosystem in Shenzhen quickly responds to opportunities with hardware for serious business, health, and education applications at speeds that weren’t possible until recent years.
Examples of Android Devices that Grew as a Result of the Pandemic
Before the pandemic started there were a few custom Android devices with access control. Once temperature testing started becoming a part of access control, temperature sensors were added to the product. Now, instead of a person taking other peoples’ temperatures at entry points for office buildings, malls, or supermarkets, a tablet does this, and much more, automatically. It takes peoples’ temperatures, assigns the temperature to a specific person, and records that information instantly for future reference as a pandemic control measure (while this raises privacy concerns that is another topic for another article).
Several different companies started making their own version of this product with little twists in design or components. Because of how many companies made their own version of this product it may not be necessary to custom make anymore since many options are available. Some of these tablets are built into a self driving robot device that approaches people for use in hospitals and restaurants.
From elementary school to colleges, remote education was forced upon students around the world. With so many students studying from home the global demand for tablets tailored to serve them exploded. While the electronics don’t vary much (or at all) from standard tablets, specialized apps and casing designs differentiate educational tablets. The huge demand for educational tablets overcompensated for the people with reduced discretionary spending and drove up component prices across the whole industry. The price increases were also a direct result of Huawei hoarding parts due to trade restrictions and reduction in production forecasts from component manufacturers, as mentioned above.
So Many Use Cases. So Many Android Custom Solutions.
Covid has brought to light how the Android platform allows for diverse and fast development of new products. Hopefully demand for pandemic related products will go down soon. Whenever that happens there will be new opportunities calling on engineers to adapt Android in new ways. If you want to bring a unique Android product to life, Hatch can help. We’re always happy to talk with entrepreneurs and engineers about your project.
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.