These days, when it comes to bringing ideas and innovations to the mass market, engineers have more resources and fewer limits than ever. Democratized hardware education through OpenHardware, Maker Movement, and OpenSource has given us the knowledge. Accessible tools like the Arduino and 3D printers have given us the ability to build our projects at home.
However, inventors and makers still need a lot of experience to see their products make it to the market. Dealing with mass production and other logistical issues like PCB manufacturing, supply chains, and warehousing is complicated, especially for hobbyists and startups.
Three years ago, I heard about NOA Labs from a Kickstarter campaign for a product called 1sheeld. It was a Bluetooth Arduino shield with a mobile application to make Arduino use your phone’s hardware as a resource for your project. 1sheeld's production and distribution were done by Noa Labs. NOA Labs has an impressive hyper red model of a German/Chinese engineering services.
So I caught up with Mr. Alexander Murawski, the CEO and founder of NOA Labs, for an interview. Alexander is in a unique position to help us understand what steps stand between your project and the mass market.
AAC: Let's start with some background. What exactly does Noa Labs do?
AM: NOA Labs is a turnkey solution company for hardware product development. That is not limited only to DFM (Design for Manufacturing) and MP (Mass Production). Our mission is to make hardware innovation accessible to everyone with a bright and clear idea. It is meant to be as simple as how Uber brings you from A to B.
We brainstorm with clients, do market research and validation, design and develop products. We prototype mechanic, electronic, or even packages. We handle mass production. When needed, we build clients' online and offline sales channels, handle warehousing, or even shipping to end customers.
We have the resources, know-how, and people to take over an idea and bring the final product to the end user's door. However, many of our clients are proficient in their part of the product lifecycle. We are glad to mix and match so that the client’s team can focus on what they are good at while we cover everything else.
NOA Labs is also running smart-prototyping.com. It is an online shop for makers, engineers, students, and geeks where people can purchase components, order custom designed PCBs, Arduino boards, and quite a lot of parts for prototyping at affordable costs. We believe that a maker does not need to pay some crazy prices to get parts for the prototyping phase. Part of our vision is positioning NOA Labs as a platform for people who are developing hardware products, and therefore we are not greedy.
AAC: So let's say that I already have an Idea with a working prototype including a schematic and a PCB layout. Could you walk me through the steps that must be done to convert my prototype to a product ready for shipment? Could you demonstrate a real life example from your customers?
AM: With having finished more than 600 projects in four years, this question is not hard for us to answer. However, it is difficult to answer within a few sentences as mass production is a wide topic and often needs to be tailored to a specific product.
Once our or the client’s R&D is ready for mass production, our SCM team requests all manufacturing related files and at least one “Golden Sample”. We run a DFM check on all files to confirm if the files and product are really ready. Otherwise, it goes back to the R&D.
From here, we handle the best possible supply chain for the particular product. On top of that, we negotiate prices and schedule and finally serve it to the client, who confirms and signs-off. After that, we need to prepare fixtures for manufacturing (like tooling), assembling (like stencils), testing (like a PCBA tester), and calibration (if needed) before we can build samples for EVT, DVT, and certifications like CE and FCC.
Once samples are ready, the tests themselves start, which is usually everything from dropping, bending, and twisting the product to heating and freezing the product in a climate chamber. In parallel to the tests, we set up and optimize the manufacturing line during the PVT until it produces the product. We also secure that quality follows client's requests, but also that production is reliable and efficient. At the end of this “Pilot Production”, the client needs to confirm within the FAT (Final Acceptance Test) that the samples are accepted. Finally, we execute production of 5,000 or 200,000 pieces or whatever the client wants for their first production batch.
1sheeld.com from Egypt is just one of many example clients who used our manufacturing services after a successful campaign on Kickstarter.
AAC: I have noticed that a lot of your customers have raised funds through crowdfunding campaigns. Do these customers have any special treatment?
AM: Actually, some of these clients have already used our services before the crowdfunding campaign to design or develop their product. We also often confirm in advance how much time and money they will need after the campaign to deliver their product (to avoid that they promise unrealistic numbers). Some clients use our marketing services to plan and execute a crowdfunding campaign or to do market research before that. Most of them are satisfied to come back again and continue the cooperation, like Nomiku.com from San Francisco who ran two successful Kickstarter campaigns.
However, we have had some clients who came to us after raising funds on crowdfunding platforms. In some cases, they have an idea of the product, renderings, sometimes working prototypes. Sometimes even fully developed products so that we just optimize their product for mass production and execute the process.
I would say that they get special treatment because they are getting remarkable knowledge by working with us. Without trying to be pretentious, I would say that, for them, we are probably one of the best companies in the world to work with to bring a product to the reality. We've dealt with many startup projects, especially from the technical side and they can be comfortable that by working with us, they will deliver their products inside the deadline at fair costs.
AAC: What is the minimum order quantity for your manufacturing service? Could you please show us a case study that could help newcomers know how much it could cost them to acquire your services?
AM: Keep in mind that, in the product life cycle, everything starts small before it grows big. For our own R&D team and for the client, we do prototyping (1-100 units), then small production (100-1000 units), and finally mass production (the first batch is usually 1k-10k units).
Costs always depend on the product. We utilize simple and transparent calculations. We are able to calculate quotes within a very short time. On top of that, we provide an online costs calculator for PCB prototyping on our online shop, mentioned above. So you can get a 5x5cm PCB with two layers, standard thickness, surface, etc. 10 times for $8.90 USD. 1000 pieces of the same PCB $360.40 USD. If you have a different size or different requirements, just choose them and you'll get an immediate price calculation based on your selection. Nothing easier than that.
For BOM and PCBA assembling, 3D printing, CNC milling, or even injection molding, we need to receive enough details from the client first. However, sitting in Shenzhen (which is not only the hardware capital of the world but also the heart of the region called “Factory of the World”), we have all the supply chain at a fingertip. And our clients love it.
AAC: Tell us about your team's technical skills. Could you make multilayers PCB and RF design, for example?
AM: Actually, our R&D team is the biggest team at our company. This is not only because we love engineering (yes, we really do!), but also because nearly every product we or our client develops is a combination of industrial design, mechanics, electronics, and firmware. Plus, it is at least connected to a smartphone app or even cloud application. Which means we need multiple engineers of each domain to cover all these fields. Even consulting our clients, certifying a product or optimizing the manufacturing line has a higher quality when we understand every single aspect of the technology.
Most products we do are smartphone or internet-connected, which means all of them have Bluetooth, WiFi, ZigBee, or 2G/3G/4G built in. So engineering and testing RF is part of our daily life. Also, most products are mobile products or even wearables, which means we have to minimize power consumption and space to the smallest possible size. Which leads to the result that most of our PCBs are between 4 and 12 layers and as thin as possible.
I, myself, studied engineering and got a Masters of Science in Mechatronics (which is a combination of mechanic, electronic, and software engineering) and worked for a few years for big companies like BMW, Airbus, and TUV Rheinland in Germany and Japan before starting NOA Labs. So I understand every single technical detail a client’s or a supplier’s engineers talk about. Also being involved in co-founding in nexpaq, Makeblock, or Senic and being part of Y Combinator or HAX has given me a lot of insight into Silicon Valley and Asia— from a startup's, investor's, or manufacturer's perspective.
AAC: What are the most challenging obstacles you come across in your work and when you deal with customers?
AM: After executing more than 600 projects with NOA Labs, it is still interesting to see when a new startup comes to us. They have never done a (hardware) product before, just finishing their first prototype and maybe raising some money on Kickstarter. Often think they are nearly finished and can ship next week, maybe next month. But I know there is still so much more work between now and their first delivery: on average 2-8 months, depending how complex their product is and how good their engineering was.
Also, it is often interesting how many startups have the greatest ideas and specs in their minds – but not on a piece of paper. If you do not specify which exact Pantone color of blue and what surface finish your product shall have, then we have to ask. Same for replaceable vs. rechargeable battery, charging via AC/DC-Jack, Micro-USB, or something else, etc.
The more explicit and specific the startup's requirements and specs are, the faster we can stop extracting all these little details and start working and developing or producing exactly the product our client wants – without surprises for anyone.
AAC: What products that you have helped design and manufacture are you most proud of?
AM: We did in the past more than 600 projects in the last four years, some as simple as a few PCBAs for an industrial client from the UK, some as complex as a stylish air purifier with powerful BLDC motor, touchscreen, Wifi plus BLE connection and several environmental sensors. Many of our projects are actually confidential, so we can not share any details. But by looking at our website noa-labs.com, you will see several examples of projects we have been involved with which ended on Kickstarter or Indiegogo like Lumio, Nomiku, Mooltipass, or nexpaq.
AAC: As a maker and an engineer and as the CEO of NOA Labs, what's the most important advice you like to give to young makers to help them arrive successfully to the market with their inventions?
AM: There are two important bits of advice which I want to give to young makers or innovators:
1. Murphy is right: Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Take it as a fact. Now try to plan and specify everything that is possible to avoid it OR capture it as early as possible AND solve it immediately. It is applicable for quality control testing at a manufacturing line as much as it is for fundraising or hiring the next star player for your team.
2. Leave the professional work to professional people. This important advice comes actually not from me but from Tobe Xu who is our CTO and the first person I ever hired in my life. And he is right. It's the same for me as an individual as it is for a young startup: Do not waste your time on something you've never specialized in before. Focus on what you are good ar (for example having an innovative idea and a great sales strategy to bring it to your target market). For the other things, find a partner who has the right mixture of skills, experience, creativity, precision, love, and passion for taking care of the things you are not good at.
Trying to save time and money leads mostly to spending more time and money—and, by the end, still not completing the task as well as a professional and experienced partner would. Quality is worth money. Even more, quality and money are proportional.
AAC: Based on your experience and on the type of projects you work on, what are the technologies and products you think will dominate the market in the future?
AM: At the moment, wearables and IoT (Internet of Things) devices are trying hard to find their way into our daily lives and homes for an average customer and niche markets.
However, also keep an eye on modular products like nexpaq or Blocks, or even modular 3D printers which are turning into pick-and-place machines, laser cutters, etc. These are reaching functionality, quality, and price points which become interesting not only for universities or makers, but also for the mass market.
AAC: What inspired you to start a company that provides services when your experience was in developing?
AM: I studied engineering and selected specifically Mechatronics because I always wanted to build robots, spaceships, flying cars, and all the other cool things I dreamed of as a child. But by having only two hands, 24 hours per day, and a limited budget, I learned quickly that to turn anything great into reality one needs a team.
So I built a special task force which specializes in every aspect of the product life cycle: a team with the right mixture of skills, experience, creativity, precision, love, and passion for turning every product we start into a real story. Along the way, I met many people who came to us with great ideas but the lack of such an execution engine. Now NOA Labs is that execution engine, a great connection to the “Factory of the World” located near Shenzhen and available to everyone.
The gigantic robots, spaceships, and flying cars are on my to-do list. But I need first to streamline, optimize, and scale our execution engine— our teams, processes, and automation.
Our team is made of 32 people with direct access to every single team manager or, if necessary, every team member. We've got a very nice and strong team. They're a reliable extension for my limited two hands and 24 hour days.
Thank you so much, Alexander, for taking the time to answer our questions today.
You can read more about Noa Labs at Noa-Labs.com.