South Australian electronics manufacturer Redarc is approaching the end of a two year development cycle for their latest vehicle braking product, the Tow-Pro electronic brake controller. Jack Baldwin reports.
It's been a gruelling trial of their design, testing and engineering skills. The unit launched in Australia in early June, and now Redarc is looking for lessons to take with them to the international market in the coming months.
Manufacturers’ Monthly sat down with Redarc's Managing Director, Anthony Kittel, and the Lead Design Engineer of the Tow-Pro, Timothy Fosdike, to hear about the process from conception to export.
Kittel and his team have been busy developing a detailed product road map for the company's future. The Tow-Pro, he told us, is the first product in that new process.
Redarc deployed a six step stage-gate process for the Tow-Pro. A product has to make its way from gate zero to gate five: First discovery, then scoping, building a business case and plan, product development, the testing and validation phase, and finally the product launch.
The good thing about the process, especially for an integrated design and manufacturing firm like Redarc, is that nothing is left to the end.
"We work with cross-functional teams throughout the stage-gate process. It means that production have a representative in the project from day-one, long before production begins," Kittel said.
"They're thinking about what they need right at the beginning. Throughout the process they're developing the manufacturing cell, for instance to make the prototype as it's being designed, and at each gate meeting they have to meet certain deliverables – first of all it might be a cell layout, later it could be a tester specification document."
The first steps for the Tow-Pro were developing a customer brief and business case. One of the biggest considerations when designing a product that has established competition is giving it a point of difference.
Redarc figured there were a few step-jump improvements they could build in to the Tow-Pro. It's the only electronic brake controller that can be mounted in any orientation and automatically calibrate itself, simplifying installation.
It's also the only product with a remote head, which means the body of the unit can be mounted anywhere on a user's dash, and it has variable voltage so it can be fitted to cars of any nationality.
Finally, it's the only unit they know of that features both inertia or proportional braking for highway driving with a trailer, and manual control for off-road towing.
Once the product meets all the company hurdles, those specifications are put in to an engineering specification document.
"We try and give Timothy as much detail as we can about what the product can do, both hardware and software, its look and feel, how it connects in with a customer's system," explained Kittel.
Also, importantly, a target costing – so he doesn't design the ultimate product that costs Redarc too much treasure to produce. It can be daunting, Fosdike said, to lay hands on the document for the first time.
"It takes a while for it to sink in. Probably the first thing, once I've read it, is to ask a lot of questions. It's a two way street between the design brief you've been given and the engineer – and then you have to hear from the people who actually use and need the product."
Redarc brought in a customer focus group from day one. The usefulness of having a group of confidentiality-bound users prepared to field phone calls and bounce ideas from can't be understated, Kittel said.
They also have full-time researchers in the field delivering feedback in to their database, as well as experience from past products in a similar vein to the Tow-Pro.
Part of Redarc's success is that they excel in 'design for manufacture'. There are two costs in developing a product – material costs and labour costs. In Australia labour might be $20 an hour; for the US, $10.50 USD an hour. In Thailand it could be as low as $4.50 USD.
These figures become even more important for an export product.
Fosdike's task, then, was to leap that hurdle by working with industrial designers to reduce the amount of labour content. Even the act of grabbing a screwdriver wastes valuable time – which led the team to aim for a total of zero mechanical fasteners in the final product.
"As soon as someone has to grab a screwdriver, even if it's electric, but as soon as they go through that operation, you're wasting time," said Kittel.
Multiply that few seconds of effort across tens of thousands of units, and that labour cost starts to add up.
Fosdike's design sought to shave even more time off the final build by advanced use of connectorisation. Assembling the electronics as well as uploading and testing software was simplified by a system of multi-purpose wiring.
Each product has a connector on each end which goes in to a jig that, when closed, completes all twelve connections in one stroke.
"It's all dual purpose," Fosdike explained, "The software is loaded and all the testing is done through exactly the same ports as the consumer will use in the end. It saves a lot of time in connecting it, and you don't need multiple test jigs."
One of the most important parts of the design process for a company like Redarc is intellectual property protection. Fosdike and Kittel would meet with a patent attorney to forward parts of the product they think could be protected.
"Once we think one has a real chance of success, Timothy will write a paper in conjunction with the patent attorney. Timothy has patent pending and we've got trademark and design registrations in place now," Kittel explains.
After the product has been designed and prototyped, an extensive testing phase takes place. This part, according to Kittel, is one of the most time consuming and difficult.
"If you do your risk management exercise, it's a braking product and obviously the liability that goes with that is extreme. So that immediately makes the weighting when you do your tests and validations very high."
Before in-house testing even began, Redarc enlisted Australia's leading truck braking safety engineer to do a desktop audit of Fosdike's design. This, Kittel explained, stops them from going too far down the wrong track.
After responding to the audit, the in-house work begins.
"It's a huge amount of work, testing. It starts from the beginning of the specification. Each of those specifications you break up in to particular rules about how you'll build it, and each of those has to be testable," said Fosdike.
"You go through your build part by part, hardware and software, module by module, testing all of them and finally putting the whole thing together and doing a set of tests on that."
During the process, Redarc have to keep design standards in mind. For an export product, those standards and regulations quickly multiply.
The solution, Kittel says, is to target the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) international specifications. Chasing these, which are much more rigorous than any mandated standards, will result in a better product – with a wider possible uptake rate.
"Rather than just designing for the aftermarket, we're setting most of the standards. Once you design it for a corporate customer like GM or Ford or Mitsubishi, it's a whole new ballgame."
Higher standards, of course, make it more likely that some component of the product won't make it through the testing alive. This prompts a redesign and then a series of regression tests to see if the changed design has affected any other part of the system.
After a series of independent tests, including Australian Design Rule (ADR) 31 – a crash test dummy assessment for frontal head impact – the product sits at the edge of gate five, ready to be released to sales.
Redarc have an advantage at this point with their fully integrated design and manufacturing setup, meaning prototypes and samples could be readily made for Fosdike and his team – if they met the challenge of fitting it in to the company's existing manufacturing volume.
"You're probably looking at six months in terms of work, to get a final build up from a prototype or field sample. Maybe even longer," said Kittel.
Procurement is a significant hurdle to overcome in this case, with lead times on electronics hovering between 12 to 20 weeks. It can be a frustrating delay having a locked in design and no way to manufacture it, but that's the nature of the industry according to Kittel.
The Tow-Pro launched at the beginning of June. Redarc, in Australia at least, already have established distribution channels, but the launch of the Tow-Pro was heavily social media based, a first for the company.
"We released a whole series of teaser commercials on our Facebook in the lead up to the launch. We had a competition with customers to guess what product it would be and awarded prizes to people who got it right," said Kittel.
This sort of approach works in an exponential manner, since users on their Facebook accounts would take that information and spread it virally over enthusiast forums around the net.
"It became obvious to me that this approach was working when I was at the Brisbane Caravan and Camping show for the Tow-Pro launch. We had people coming to our stand and they'd heard of our product. They wouldn't remember where, just that it was somewhere on the internet."
The added bonus of having an engaging online launch, said Kittel, is that the customers were putting in their own feedback and coming up with ideas about products they'd like to see from the company. That data can be fed back in to future developments.
"We got some fantastic ideas about what sort of products they're looking for through that promotion."
Even after the release, the feedback loop that started with focus groups and field researchers continues – greatly expanded as more customers use the product. The Tow-Pro will continue to be iterated on until the international release – and it will likely continue then.
"Once we have experience here, we'll be able to tailor the marketing material for the country we're going to target. And obviously for Timothy's perspective, he's keen to get as much feedback from the field in terms of incremental design improvements."
The great thing about launching a product such as the Tow-Pro from South Australia is the wide variety of road conditions available to test it on. That's essential for something that will be used with horsefloats, caravans, camper trailers, councils towing diggers, marine users and more.
In these ways, the launch in Australia ends up being something a beta-test for the international market. Redarc is investing a lot of time and research in to making sure the Tow-Pro takes off as an international product – and opens the way for more Redarc products in the future.
"When you choose a market to enter, you've got to have a thorough plan. It's not just about signing up a distributor or finding a customer. It's about the whole path you're taking to market – price points, marketing messages, promoting brand awareness – the list goes on," explained Kittel.
That market development plan is a comprehensive document, Kittel says. It's the end result of a lot of hard work from Fosdike and the Redarc team, conceiving of and designing the Tow-Pro from scratch.
"For something as complex as the Tow-Pro, that whole process from design to manufacture could be as short as 18 months to three years. This one Timothy rolled out in two years, he joined us right at the start.
"The fact he was new to the company and this was his first major project, it was a big learning curve in terms of what the product did and learning the standards, then actually going through and doing a design. I guess we can probably give him three to six months of grace!" said Kittel.
"I guess, when I started," said Fosdike," I'd never driven with a trailer larger than a six by four. It's a whole new area for me."
Story image: Redarc managing director Anthony Kittel
Jack Baldwin is a journalist at The Lead South Australia