Ask yourself: would you rather spend your time and attention building your company or juggling dozens of global relationships in Mandarin Chinese?
When you’re working with IoT products requiring hundreds of parts, made by a massive chain of suppliers and manufacturers, you need the absolute guarantee that your supply chain runs smoothly. When one piece of this supply chain runs into a problem--whether it’s a simple screw or a system-wide power outage--the whole process can screech to a halt. Device designers who coordinate their own details often run into problems because they don’t speak Mandarin or live near the relevant factories. That’s where A-ONE Group Holdings shows its true power.
A-ONE specializes in consolidation and coordination of supply chains, ensuring a device’s elements are of sufficient quality and arrive at the right place at the right time. As Lorne Smith, A-ONE’s director of business development, puts it: We are you... in China.
Eighteen-wheeler trailers kill more than 400 Americans, mostly children, every year when they’re left in reverse. When entrepreneur George Owens realized this danger, he set out to solve it.
SpotterCone is a pair of translucent plastic cones that lay out laser beams to guide a driver while backing up. When the vehicle reaches its desired location, the cone uses sonar to sense the vehicle’s position and indicates to the driver that it’s time to stop.
As one of A-ONE’s IoT products, SpotterCone required coordination and consolidation between 17 production facilities. Each of these elements required a unique relationship with a different Chinese factory:
- Brass screws
- Printed circuit boards
- Power supply
… the list goes on.
When a product designer starts a new IoT project, they often don’t realize the sheer number of relationships necessary in the manufacturing process. Again using SpotterCone as an example, let’s look at the ten elements involved in the manufacturing process so we can better understand the complex coordination necessary to take an IoT product from concept to market.
After working with several electrical engineering firms on the guts of the product, Owens approached A-ONE for help with industrial design. He wanted SpotterCone to clearly communicate its value and abilities, even before a customer used the product.
Given its position in the trucking market, A-ONE recommended SpotterCone be perceived as “Rugged, beefy, and long-lasting,” Smith describes. And because SpotterCone is a safety device, it’s critical that customers perceive it as reliable. Both of those elements can be seen in their ultimate product.
SpotterCone is a glass-filled plastic called Nylon 66. Nylon 66 is much more expensive than a polycarbonate or ABS plastic, but it gives the product an industrial look and is incredibly rugged, a necessary feature for SpotterCone. During product testing, A-ONE rolled an eighteen-wheeler over SpotterCone and, due to the materials used, found it wouldn’t break.
For plastic injection molding that makes up the outer shell, A-ONE does all the tooling themselves, while they partner with another vendor for the transparent plastic reflectors. To be used for certain applications, these reflectors must have certification from the U.S. Department of Transportation. As Smith warns, “Most product designers wouldn’t even think about that until they’ve already made it wrong.”
A-ONE’s clients typically make their own design choices, after which A-ONE makes suggestions (like these two) based on their professional experience and government-backed regulations.
SpotterCone wanted a durable bag that spoke to the brand, so they partnered with a camera bag manufacturer to modify an off-the-shelf offering.
This process might sound easy, but even something as simple as a bag can cause hiccups. Every modification, from the piping to the proper typo of sewn-on patch, needs to come together seamlessly or risk manufacturing and branding errors that can be costly to resolve.To remain cohesive and timely, someone must pre-plan all the technical details and coordinate them with the proper supplier.
One of A-ONE’s vendors specializes in user interfaces (UI). For SpotterCone, the UI vendor ensured the front pad felt right while remaining completely impervious to water and other environmental factors.
Generally, a product designer will try to reduce the cost of materials by using as many off-the-shelf components as possible. With SpotterCone’s lasers, that wasn’t an option. They needed a certain pattern of a certain color at a certain length, requiring a manufacturer to customize a lens for specific uses. A-ONE was able to find a manufacturer in China that could do that; adjusting their tooling and creating a unique lens.
Before choosing a battery, A-ONE identified 5,000 suppliers in Shenzhen, China. Not all of these suppliers, however, make high-quality batteries, so A-ONE qualified the relevant vendors before settling on a battery that will work reliably year after year.
Then, transporting lithium-ion batteries can cause a headache for the inexperienced product designer. As long as the batteries are declared correctly on the manifest, the process is straightforward. This is, however, an element that may be unfamiliar to a product designer, and having your batteries seized, or worse, is a high cost of failure.
SpotterCone’s original design called for an atypical type of charging cable. A-ONE suggested they switch to Micro-USB because, as Smith puts it, “Everybody in the world has a Micro-USB.” Problem is, the SpotterCone had already been designed to use 7.5V power. This change led to a product redesign to accommodate the easier charging. At the end of the day, however, Micro-USB was still much less expensive because the charging cables are ubiquitous.
After changing their charging cable designs, A-ONE vetted approximately 5,000 vendors to find a plug that’s FCC-certified (with real certifications) and a global power supply. They settled on a specific plug that works with 6V, 12V, and 24V power input. No matter what vehicle it’s plugged into, SpotterCone charges properly.
When Smith tells colleagues that SpotterCone’s USB charging cable costs $3.50, they’ve been known to scoff. “But I can buy it on Alibaba for $1.20,” they might say.
Smith, however, is confident in A-ONE’s decision. “Will those cables work for a very long time, with no risk, for all the relevant voltages? For this type of product, buying a lower-cost cable would be penny-wise, pound-foolish.”
For SpotterCone, Sonar was the most complicated and expensive part.
The SpotterCone team originally considered all sorts of distance detection methods--optical, for example--before settling on sonar. They chose sonar so the cone could work reliably under difficult outdoor conditions like rain and snow.
There are only a handful of companies in the world capable of producing the relevant type of sonar. A-ONE originally met with a U.S. company that provided had an expensive version accurate down to the millimeter. While SpotterCone must be accurate and reliable, that level of precision was overkill for this application. Instead, A-ONE leveraged their relationship with companies in China and Taiwan to lower the sonar costs from $100 per unit to $28. As Smith describes, “It’s still the most expensive part of the bill of materials, but now it’s tolerable.”
Printed circuit boards
A-ONE has an entire portfolio of electronics manufacturers just for printed circuit boards (PCBs). For most electronics, they may choose based on price and quality, while unique applications may point them toward a specialist.
For SpotterCone, A-ONE coordinated the PCB supplier that made the board, surface-mount technology (SMT) company that applied the components, and an in-house assembly performed by A-ONE itself.
Once the units have been manufactured, A-ONE completes all the assembly--inserting the charged-up batteries, flashing the firmware to the boards, and testing each unit. In early startups, firmware glitches are common, so A-ONE ensures the final assembly happens in the same location as the SMT to save time and effort in case of problems.
Conclusion - the value of a supply chain management company
For product designers, supply chain management companies like A-ONE can be a critical partner in bringing a project to completion. Many entrepreneurs find building a business to be tough enough without being dragged down by difficult relationships in a foreign language. Working with a reliable team can make all the difference.
Need help coordinating relationships with Chinese manufacturers? A-ONE has decades of experience. Visit their Ioterra profile.