Industrial Design from Zero to Product

 

 

 

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People often ask us how we made the Aeroscope wireless oscilloscope probe with just two electrical engineers on such a complex project. It encompassed not only sophisticated analog electronics, but also FPGA, firmware, software, mechanicals, and industrial design. We essentially just dove right in, voraciously working on any available task. I took the reins on the mechanical aspects of Aeroscope, including the industrial design.

One thing I learned throughout the industrial design process is the importance of iteration. Just like in engineering, it is rare to stumble on the best solution right away. The beauty of design is that you can iterate much faster than hardware or even software. Since this was literally my first rodeo, my main weakness was thinking too much like a hardware engineer. I was overly concerned about cost and space for the printed circuit board and didn’t think enough “outside the box.”

As an EE, I had never really done any non-engineering design work. My main exposure to it was by working at several consumer product companies. From my limited experience, I knew that to make this product work it not only had to look good, it had to be easy to use as well. On top of that, we had to be able to produce it with our meager budget. To get the right combo of looks, ergonomics, and manufacturability, I wanted to try out many designs ideas very quickly and settle on one with the optimum mix. Since a scope probe is something you hold in your hand and interact with, jumping straight into CAD seemed like a bad idea. I had to be able to feel it, so I chose clay as my prototyping medium. Specifically, I used Sculpey modeling clay because it was easy to work with and test ideas. When I was finished with playing with an idea, I could just bake it in the oven to harden it and make it durable enough to handle.

 

Exploring forms with clay models

Exploring forms with clay models

My first idea was just a simple pen shape, modeled in clay. This left very little space for any internals, though. My engineering hat took over — again, my main weakness in this process — and I added extra internal volume for the next few iterations, sacrificing ergonomics. At this stage, I felt confident enough to try to CAD up some of the ideas. I used Autodesk Fusion 360 CAD software to make a 3D computer model of the best clay prototype. The sculpt tool of Fusion 360 really helped out here. Many CAD packages require you to model complex organic forms from 2D sketches in a tedious process similar to building an old wooden sailing ship. This can work well, but you get into trouble when you want to add features not present in your reference design. Fusion 360 includes a feature that essentially allows you to digitally sculpt a virtual block of clay. This really helped when I wanted to tweak certain elements that weren’t in my clay model. I started by importing a top view and a side view of the clay model and tweaking the virtual clay to match.

 

Modeling the prototype in Fusion 360

Modeling the prototype in Fusion 360

Once I had a 3D model, I ordered 3D prints from a San Francisco company called Fictiv. I was shocked when the prints showed up at my apartment (I was living in San Francisco at the time) the next day and delivered by bicycle! They were also much higher quality that we could have achieved with a hobby printer. We used this 3D printed case together with our first form factor PCB to make the first working prototype.

 

Clay model and working prototype

Clay model and working prototype

Giddy from the excitement of the first form factor prototype, I thought the industrial design was done. That is, until I started showing it around. Everybody was very positive, but the overwhelming feedback was that it was too bulky and awkward. I’m glad I had their feedback because they were definitely right.

Back to the drawing board, I thought up some iterations of the design and decided it would be easier to take the existing CAD model and make tweaks rather than start all over from the clay stage. Here is where Fictiv really pulled through for us. I was able to tweak the CAD to make a few different options and get prints back the next day like before. This time, however, I continued to make adjustments based on the 3D prints. The short turn-around was critical at this point. I was able to do multiple complete design cycles inside of a week.

 

Rapid prototyping with 3D prints

Rapid prototyping with 3D prints

After a few of these “CAD tweak, 3D print, repeat” cycles, we settled on a final shape. It was much smaller, better looking, and more ergonomic than anything we had previously. The next step was mechanical engineering to turn the industrial design concept into a full mechanical design that could be made out of injection molded plastic. But that is another story…

 

New App Update

An Aeroscope app update went live this morning that optimized the way settings are relayed to the Aeroscope hardware, dramatically increasing the smoothness and and responsiveness of the touch interface. This new update also fixed some minor bugs and addressed some issues working with slow triggers.

We are calling this version 0.92. We still have some more features to add until we hit our 1.0 release. The major features planned for our next releases are: more measurements and exporting of captured data and traces. 

In case you missed it, our last update added support for color themes for the app. Whether in a dark room or bright sun or anything in between, you can choose from four different themes to suit your taste. Be sure to download the update to get the latest features.

Open Protocol

From Aeroscope's beginning, we set out to design a completely open protocol. We wanted to empower users to write their own apps because we knew we could never envision all the unique applications people would use Aeroscope for. 

Today, we have released complete documentation on Aeroscope's Bluetooth LE communication protocol. This datasheet is our initial release. It will evolve as we get feedback and questions. We have been beta-testing this documentation with a college student who has been using it to write an Aeroscope app for his senior project. Let us know how you use it.

We are also committed to open-sourcing our app. Right now, we are preparing our app for submission to Apple's app store. In the coming days (before we ship), we will be releasing the source code on Github as well. Our app is written in Swift and should serve as a good starting point for any custom apps you write or any source code contributions you want to make.

Aeroscope Multiplatform Support

The most common question we get is whether we plan to support multiple platforms. Right now, I can say with 100% certainty that we will.

Our main strategy by launching with only iOS support was to ensure a good user experience on one platform rather than a crummy experience on multiple platforms. Due to hardware and software variations between different phone and tablet vendors, it is much harder to ensure fast Bluetooth LE transmission on Android vs iOS. The app might work really well on one phone model but not at all on another without additional testing and modification. This made our launch platform decision very clear: iOS

Our iOS app is fully native, written in Apple's new language: Swift. We chose to write a native app first to ensure a high-quality user experience in the minimal amount of time. Our next platform priorities are Windows and Android. To achieve this, we are going to create a second app using a cross-platform toolkit. Over time, we will additionally add support for Linux and MacOS as we add polish for those platforms. 

If you are one of those people waiting for us to branch out from iOS: Don't worry, we'll get there. We plan to release an initial cross-platform app by Sept. 2017, with beta versions available before then.

If you can't wait that long, there has never been a better time to buy an iPad. Apple just dropped their prices and you can buy a full-sized iPad for $329.  The iPad mini 2 is going for around $250 on amazon

Progress Update

It has been a while since we have posted an update and we've been getting some questions regarding the future of Aeroscope. Here is a short update about what we've been working on for the last few months.

We have been working hard here at Aeroscope Labs ramping up for our upcoming product launch. The lower cost Aeroscope 100 hardware design is just about finalized and we are putting the final touches on the iOS app. Production quantities of parts are starting to show up at our Boulder office and we are ironing out the kinks with our production test process. The excitement is building as we get closer and closer to launch day!

We are planning on running another campaign on Crowd Supply in late January. This will be more of a pre-sale campaign than a traditional crowdfunding campaign. We are building up an inventory of Aeroscope 100s that will be ready to ship prior to the campaign's launch. This means that Aeroscope will be shipped out to our backers as soon as they place their order. The campaign won't have a funding goal, ensuring that anyone who orders an Aeroscope will receive one. If we sell out of our existing inventory there will be a 6 week delay while we build up more Aeroscopes.

After all of the Crowd Supply backers have received their Aeroscopes we will be selling through our website. We also intend on selling through a few distributors but don't have a firm timeline on when that will begin.

We appreciate all of the words of support and encouragement we have received surrounding Aeroscope. We can't wait to get this great product out into the world!

Pre-sale Campaign

We are excited to announce more details regarding our upcoming crowd funding campaign. We have decided to host our campaign on Crowd Supply.  Crowd Supply is a hardware only funding platform that focuses on bringing well prepared, mature products to market. They perform a thorough vetting process before agreeing to represent projects and they have a 100% delivery rate on their funded projects.

This focus on quality products and user satisfaction resonates with Jon and myself. Although we have been working on Aeroscope for two years, we have waited to launch this campaign until now. Not only did we want to ensure that we had a solid design but also that we had anticipated all costs, schedule impacts, manufacturing time frames, and regulatory hurdles. This careful planning and hard work will ensure that Aeroscope is a quality product and will be delivered to its backers on time. Our campaign will launch at 9am EDT on Tuesday June 14. Click here to visit our campaign page.

Manufacturing Aeroscope

As we have mentioned in previous posts, we have identified a US based manufacturing partner to produce Aeroscope. This Wisconsin based company has three production facilities and has been working in the electronics industry for over 35 years. We recently traveled to Wisconsin and toured a few of their plants. We were impressed with their capabilities and are excited for them to start cranking out Aeroscopes!

We are often asked why we have decided to produce Aeroscope in the USA and not in China. Jonathan and I have experience manufacturing products in the USA, Mexico, Malaysia, and China. We have both felt the pros and cons of off shore manufacturing first hand.

Overseas manufacturing makes sense for very high volume products but not necessarily for low or medium volume production. Costs in China are rising [1] and producing products in Asia isn't as compelling as it once was [2]. Long and expensive flights, dramatic time zone differences, language barriers, and long over ocean shipping times all detract from the attractiveness of Asian manufacturing. I have been involved in multiple product launches that experienced weeks of schedule slip due to back and forth email correspondence with Asian manufacturing partners.

Additionally, there is a lack of control when production volumes aren't large enough to warrant your own dedicated production line. Large factories will agree to manufacture your product but will try and squeeze the manufacturing in during down times between their larger volume clients. This means that you don't know exactly when the build will take place and you won't be there to support any problems that may arise. 

For these reasons, we have decided to produce Aeroscope at US based manufacturing facilities.