Excited to announce that TinyCircuits is an award winner for the 2015 Manny Award - celebrating Northeast Ohio Manufacturing. Our manufacturing director Dave Kearns will be accepting the award next week.
Article from Inside Business Magazine:
TinyCircuits took open-sourced electronics and shrunk them to make product design easier for hobbyists and startups.
In a workshop in Akron, TinyCircuits is building the electronic equivalent of LEGOs. Small by manufacturing standards, their 5,200-square-foot space is shared with two other startups.
But to TinyCircuits CEO Ken Burns, smaller is better.
Burns, 40, started designing electronics at Avid Technologies in Twinsburg after graduating from the University of Akron with a degree in engineering. But after 10 years with the product design firm, he wanted to strike out on his own.
“I had some ideas around smart sensor modules and things that would be more geared for industrial use,” says Burns.
To create his sensors, he needed a computing platform, a starting point from which to build. “To do that in the electrical engineering world, you have to get all these different boards and wire these things together,” he says.
Instead of trying to build from the ground up, Burns turned to the hobbyist world. He discovered the Arduino, an open-source control board on which users build around a main processing unit and can add extra boards, called shields, for extras such as WiFi connectivity. Burns seized on the idea.
“It’s really like LEGOs,” he says. “You just snap it in.”
But the Arduino, designed for the clumsy hands of a school environment, was too hefty. Using Arduino’s open-source architecture, Burns rebuilt the board with a smaller footprint and higher-tech components. He dubbed it TinyDuino.
The processor on the main Arduino is about 2 inches by one-half inch. “Ours is about 4 millimeters — one-fifth of an inch,” says Burns. “So, a much smaller version of the same part.”
Michael James, owner of the Akron-based training organization Open Source Hardware Group, recommends TinyCircuits products to his electronics classes.
“I can get just about all the same shields for a regular-sized Arduino that I can get for a TinyDuino, generally speaking — WiFi, Bluetooth, they have all that stuff,” says James. “Basically, [size] is not a limiting factor.”
In 2012, with 1,200 preorders and $110,000 raised from a Kickstarter campaign, Burns started assembly in the former BF Goodrich building in Akron.
Because the order volume was relatively low, using an outside contract manufacturer would have made the costs too high, Burns says. “But also, I wanted to do it,” he adds. “It’s kind of the sadist in me. It’s quite a challenge.”
Today Burns has help from David Kearns, director of manufacturing. “Since he came on, it’s been day and night in terms of the quality increases we’ve had,” says Burns. “Now we’re at like 99 percent first-yield success. Compared to where we were when we first did it, we were getting like 25 percent.”
TinyCircuits’ 35 product varieties start as custom-printed boards divided into 30 to 35 blue silicon panels. They are fed into a stencil printer, which puts down a layer of solder paste — electrically conductive grayish goop.
“It’s almost like frosting,” says Burns. “Though you wouldn’t want to eat it.”
Once the solder paste is spread out, a pick-and-place machine suctions up the small electronic components, such as transistors and chips, and places them on the board.
Using a laser guidance system, the machine’s nozzles can deposit about 800 small parts per panel at a rate of 8,000 pieces per hour. “It’s big. The whole [system] is probably 500 pounds swinging back and forth,” says Burns. “It’s pretty cool to see going.”
The panels are then put in a reflow oven, where they’re gradually heated to 475 degrees until the solder paste turns molten before cooling and hardening — about four and a half minutes of cook time. After testing, the boards and shields are popped off the panels and shipped out — some individually, others as kits.
To keep costs manageable, TinyCircuits builds only a few hundred processors and shields at a time.
But that hasn’t cramped the seven-person company’s revenue stream, an estimated $370,000 in 2014. Most of the company’s customers are hobbyists or aspiring startups creating prototypes, but Burns envisions a greater market serving startups.
“We haven’t had to go outside and get angel or [venture capital] money or anything,” says Burns. “If we did have to raise investment, it’s much better than the guys with ideas on napkins, I think. We’ve proven that it can work.”
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