Pandemic forced engineering department to build prototypes while sheltering in place
We had this great new technology while our shop was shutting down. As we game-planned, we had one of those “so-crazy-it-just-might-work” ideas.
BY JEREMY LOSAW
On March 26, we in the Enventys Partners Engineering Department had to completely rethink how we build prototypes.
That was the day Charlotte enacted a stay-at-home order as the impact of the coronavirus began to become more widespread. Schools were shutting down; around the world, more people were encouraged to work from home.
Our engineering team had been working remotely when it made sense, but we kept the prototyping shop open so we could continue to use all of our great tools. However, when all non-essential business were required to close, we had to shutter the prototyping shop regardless of our importance to our clients and the innovation community.
So, just two days after we heard the official news, the engineering team had to plan for how we could continue to build prototypes while the team was forced to shelter in place.
It was a stressful 48 hours to game out how we would continue to prototype effectively without the shop. But looking back, I am proud to say that we have been successful in keeping our development programs running and building great prototypes.
Here are some of the ways we have adapted and brought the tools and techniques from our shop into our homes.
When people think of prototyping, they often think of 3D printing. Although certainly not the only way to build parts, 3D printers have become an essential part of prototyping and are even starting to be used to create mass-produced parts.
In the past decade, a plethora of desktop 3D printers have come to the market that use spools of plastic filament. We use these at Enventys Partners for some applications. However, most of our needs require high-fidelity parts that are made on professional-grade printers.
One week before the shutdown, we were very excited to commission a new 3D printer called Origin One. It uses a technique called programmable photopolymerization, which uses photocured resins similar to a stereolithography machine.
However, the Origin is great because it runs parts very fast, and materials can be changed quickly without having to switch out an entire tank of material. This makes it well suited for running parts at scale— which is important for us, as we have two products that will use parts from this machine in production.
So, we had this great new technology while our shop was shutting down. As we game-planned, we had one of those “so-crazy-it-just-might-work” ideas.
Unlike some other manufacturing-grade printers, the Origin is pretty small and can fit on a desktop without too much trouble. So we thought that maybe we could just have someone take it home and run it at their house.
One of our engineers, TJ Root, volunteered. He took the printer and the cleaning equipment home and set up the unit at his place. It was pretty simple and drama free, and we were only without printing capability for a day.
When anyone on the team needs parts, he or she sends the file to TJ and picks up the parts at his house the next day. The scale and quality of the printer allowed us to be very flexible and ensured the team was never lacking 3D-printed parts.
Approximately 75 percent of our development portfolio is electrified, so it was crucial for us to be able to service those prototypes effectively. The main needs for our electronic prototypes are population of circuit boards, writing firmware (the code that runs on the microcontroller), and testing and troubleshooting of the system as a whole. We attacked each of these needs from home in a different way.
PCB assembly turned out to be fairly easy to do remotely. Our process for creating PCBs for prototypes: Our electrical engineer designs the circuit, we order five or 10 of the design from a PCB board house, then we populate them with components at the Enventys Partners shop.
Fortunately, our PCB vendors are all deemed to be critical businesses, so they never shut down and we were able to manufacture our unpopulated boards fairly quickly. For the initial prototypes, the components typically are purchased from one of the big U.S. supply houses such as Arrow, Digikey or Mouser, which also stayed open throughout the shutdowns.
The components and PCBs were then sent to our technician’s house. He was able to take what few bits of specialized equipment he needed home with him, and has been able to build all of our circuits from his personal workbench to keep our prototypes running.
Because we did not have a slowdown in production of our circuit boards, that left the programming and troubleshooting as the major hurdles.
The programming is easy to do remotely, as writing code can be done from anywhere. It is the merging of the code with the circuit and the physicality of the prototype that is the trick.
Our lead electrical engineer opted to shelter in place in Colorado, so he was not within driving distance of the rest of the team and we needed a way for him to program and monitor prototypes effectively.
Our solution was remote workstations. The lead mechanical engineer on a project took the circuit home, along with the necessary power supplies and wiring, and set up a laptop with the circuit connected via a USB programming cable. Then we set up a remote access program so that our electrical engineer could take control of the computer and directly interface with the hardware.
Once the program was uploaded, the mechanical engineer ran tests on the program and the team iterated on the code from there. It was a very effective technique that has allowed us to deliver a number of electronic prototypes throughout the lockdown.
Beyond 3D printing, we use a number of other techniques to build prototypes. All these processes had to be reimagined.
One method that has allowed us to effectively build prototypes remotely is to engage more vendors. We have always used a variety of vendors to help build either parts and pieces that we could not make in-house or did not have the time to do that way. However, without access to our own equipment, we have recently relied more heavily on this network to machine or mold parts for us.
Because the product development team is a group of makers themselves, we all have a decent set of tools at each of our homes. So once we have the custom parts made, they are shipped to our houses and we do the final assembly and testing there.
We have also been able to make some parts from our homes. For example, before the shutdown, we knew we were going to need to mold some parts for a prototype, so our shop technician brought home the pressure pot and other special molding equipment to make sure he could mold the parts.
We have even been doing paint work from our homes. I have done some touchup airbrush work on a prototype in my driveway.
Building a prototype is a very hands-on and intimate process. As product designers, we need to assemble them ourselves to understand how all parts work together and try to find ways to make the products better.
Though the COVID-19 crisis has forced us to move away from the shop, it has not slowed the pace of development on any of our products. We have found creative ways to get things done.
Regardless of when we have full access to our shop, we will continue to maintain the pace of innovation that we need.