Archive for March, 2015

Microwave project managing – week 6

Other News

The fan in my laptop died this week. It has been struggling and groaning noisily along for a while now, occasionally the boot has even failed due to a fan error but a second shot always got through. While I had the system switched off I thought it would be a good idea to blow the dust out and give it a bit of love. It still groans along but now the fan error is consistent. :( I have ordered a replacement fan which should arrive next week. In the last six months I have had to swap the battery, hard drive and fan. Maybe my Lenovo is reaching the end of its lifespan, 2008 was a while ago and apparently it doesn’t even run WOW.

Other Other News

In better other news, a friend pointed out that a recent XKCD what if? post is on the topic of microwaves. Because it seems microwaves are awesome.

Screen

I have contacted several suppliers of the Banana Pi and a screen supplier to get price estimates. The screen supplier may be able to fit the touchscreen, which is a bonus, otherwise I have some touchscreen suppliers selected to approach.

The initial Banana Pi pricing is $29 USD in quantities of 500, $34 for samples. I am looking at a seven inch IPS screen which I expect to be roughly $15 and another few bucks for the capacitive touchscreen. So a total bill of roughly $50 USD with no electronic design required, which makes me very happy.

An interesting side note is that both the Raspberry Pi and Banana Pi feature a ribbon connection for the screen which follows a standard by MIPI (not an acronym) called the Display Serial Interface (DSI). This is a fairly standard interface used by the mobile phone industry which makes it very nice to pick up screens for. The Raspberry Pi hardware has always featured this connector however the drivers to use it weren’t initially provided by Broadcom, so most of the screen accessories use the HDMI port. When the Raspberry Pi foundation released their screen it used the DSI interface and was paired with a driver release. However this driver still only uses some of the bus (half the LVDS channels by some reports) so you can’t use standard screens with it. The Allwinner chip used by the Banana Pi has full support. The only remaining annoyance is that the DSI bus supports an I2C channel for the touchscreen but all the screen manufacturers seem to use a separate touchscreen cable, I may even have to do some design work.

Schedule

So, it probably isn’t a shock after I completely blew a week or two that I am rapidly approaching the end of the eight week evaluation period and there is an awful lot not yet done. Essentially all of the outstanding work is doing preliminary work in the technical innovations I hoped to achieve.

Breaking it down into tasks we have subheadings.

Thermal Camera

The thermal camera is a key body of work that I have let slide.

I identified two potential camera systems to evaluate, the Seek Thermal which I have gotten a sample of and the Panasonic Grid-Eye 8×8 which I managed to get Panasonic to agree providing samples of. The plan was to compare, decide, potentially make an approach to Seek Thermal etc.

The plan went awry when I met Braemac a local distributor of electronic goods including Panasonic’s. There are two companies in Australia that do this sort of distribution, Braemac and Avnet. I have interacted with Avnet a fair bit, they distribute Xilinx chips so at my last employer I was on first name terms with their Xilinx sales/support guy. Panasonic actually uses both companies, I chose Braemac in this instance as they are the smaller of the two and I thought it would be good to build a relationship into the other electronics distributor. My only prior experience with Braemac was also at my last employer, we were trying to purchase some U-Blox GPS modules. We ordered them well in advance but Braemac managed to slip the delivery three times, as we were getting into damages territory with our customer I reached out to someone senior I knew in U-Blox and we managed to get some emergency components from Singapore. It seems like this negative experience wasn’t a one off.

I had done all the work, it really should have been rather simple for Braemac. I had approached Panasonic, they had agreed to provide the samples, everything was arranged except for me giving over money. Panasonic sent the price to Braemac, Braemac’s job was to put their header on it, take my money, remove their cut and pass the rest back to Panasonic. We are only talking samples at this stage so they probably aren’t making a profit but it isn’t like it is a great deal of work.

Braemac managed to not respond for eleven days, and even then several days after I contacted Panasonic to give them a shove, their feedback to Panasonic was similarly absent.

The Panasonic rep offered a sample quantity of ten. Ten is a fairly high number for samples, acceptable but generally for a complex part you get 3-5 samples. The Braemac email listed a minimum sample quantity of 100. I have never before heard of a manufacturer demanding the purchase of 100 units as a sample. Even samples of trivial parts like capacitors aren’t done in lots of 100. Why would you evaluate something 100 times before making a decision?

When questioned about the sample quantity Braemac haven’t responded, it has been two weeks so far.

I need to get on top of this ASAP. Even once ordered it will probably take several weeks to get the samples and a week to evaluate them. There is no way I am going to close this out by the end of the month.

The plan going forward is to call the Braemac rep on Tuesday. If I can’t get it resolved on the Tuesday I will aggressively pursue samples through Avnet. I can’t see resolving the camera system by my decision deadline, I think the best I can hope for is to get as much done as I can and deal with it at the time. Making a viability call with this element so uncertain is difficult, I may have to put a secondary evaluation date in.

Inverter

I would like to include an inverter system in my microwave, it isn’t critical but certainly a nice to have. I concluded a while ago that the only viable way forward was to buy the system from Panasonic, parts, patent licence etc. as a complete kit. This seems to be how other manufacturers such as Sharp have approached it.

My plan was to use the cameras to build a relationship with Panasonic and then broach the question of the inverter technology. I think I have enough of this so far, I’ll raise the inverter tech when I talk to Panasonic in the process of resolving the camera sample mess.

Scales

The scales technology is relatively simple. I am confident that I can handle the electronics side and will be able to at least estimate the cost by the end of the month. It will probably involve a custom PCB which is increased risk but it should be a simple one.

The outstanding element here is that I am probably going to need to create a custom plate for the scales. There are a few options with different cost/design tradeoffs but I need to be more knowledgeable about the costs involved in plastic fabrication to proceed.

When dealing with the metal fabricators some plastic companies were mentioned. I need to line up a visit next week and get an understanding of the different techniques with their tooling and unit costs.

No turntable

The lack of a turntable in the system is basically a requirement to get the scales working.

Again the technology, a basic understanding of it, is simple enough that even I have grasped it.

I just haven’t found anyone who sells them premade. Panasonic probably another option, I’m giving them all my money anyway… I could also grab one and get a metal bender to clone it but the part needs to be precisely made. Designing my own would probably require RF measurements to do it properly which is complex and expensive, not to mention how terrifying RF design is.

Screen

The screen is actually looking fairly good. I haven’t received the samples to try out but that is fairly low risk and should happen before the end of the month. I have a solution and enough information to estimate the cost solution, which is all I really need at this point.

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Microwave project managing – week 5

Update

So I really didn’t do much this week. I have always suffered from occasional days where my productivity drops off and I achieve virtually nothing. I found that working solo this was much harder to arrest and control.

In the spirit of full disclosure it was more like two weeks. With a fairly sharp decline in the second half of week 4, the entire loss of week 5 and the first half of week 6. I had overrun set aside in the schedule, I had hoped that if it was needed it would be due to external factors… but it means the impact isn’t as bad as it could have been.


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Grants

Rather than leave this entry completely depressingly empty I’ll pad it out with an informative rant on grants.

Prior to my move to the Geelong region every time I heard the city mentioned in the news it seemed to be attached to another bundle of money. Especially around the Federal election it seemed like politicians were determined to drown Geelong in largess.

So when I hatched this deranged plan and moved to the region looking into these buckets of cash was always on my todo list. I’m starting a business, it’s new and innovative, in the right area and I may even have to employ people one day. It is something a number of people I have talked to have also mentioned.

I will foreshadow slightly by saying that everybody who raised it was from out of the region. None of the local accountants I talked to raised it, the one I brought it up with is well connected with the regional community and knew nothing about them.

Grants are awarded by the Federal and State Government departments, councils as well as private businesses. I suspect in the past being aware of a grant was a big problem so the government has made that part of the process much easier, with their Grant Finder website.

Using the Grant Finder you select your region by state, industry and a few other elements. It then provides a list of relevant grants to look up the details of. My list was roughly 220 items long. I managed to cull this down to about ten worth looking in to. I will mention though that the City of Melbourne has an impressive collection of grants if you a starting a small business in the Melbourne CBD.

GRIIF

The big daddy of grant funds is the Geelong Region Innovation & Investment Fund (GRIIF), probably better known as the Ford fund. Money was tipped in by the Federal Government, the Victorian Government, Ford and later Alcoa. Roughly half the money is for Northern Melbourne where the Ford suppliers and trickle down employment is actually located. $29.5M is allocated for Geelong.

So far $18M has been spent in two funding rounds. Money is provided on the basis of creating permanent jobs, all funds must be matched by the receiving company. The grants must be at least $50k but in practice most are well over $1M, the smallest awarded is $230k. This corresponds to roughly $30k per job. From the grant summaries it seems like the grants are bringing forward planned expansion and investment, not necessarily bad but useful to note in evaluating the scheme.

What I found interesting is that the last round closed on the 29th of May 2014. There has been no announcement of a third round, when I inquired as to when a third round was likely to occur I was told “at this stage no future rounds or potential dates have been announced.”

All money from the grant must be spent by the end of the 2015/2016 financial year, this is an important element of the fund because it corresponds to the timeline of the Ford job losses. Assuming you want a grant to expand your company with a new manufacturing facility I see a crude timeline of:
* 2 months to prepare the grant
* 1 month to evaluate the grants
* 1 month to plan the details of the expansion
* 6 months to buy the equipment, probably custom built and sea freighted
* 1 month to install and commission

With this very ambitious timeline you are looking at 11 months to finish the grant based works and get the funding. Given that the money must be spent in the next 15 months it seems like they are running low on time. I know accounting games can be played to bring the spending forward but I assume the government wouldn’t run the program planning for this.

The cynic in me suspects that the government could not provide any updates until too late, then quietly close it. I don’t know the details of how the remaining money would be divided and returned but I believe all of the parties would be happy to pocket the funds.

GAF

The Geelong Advancement Fund (GAF) is a Victorian Government initiative run out of the Regional Development Victoria department. GAF has $11M to “drive jobs growth, increase skills and innovation and deliver economic and community infrastructure in Geelong.”.

So far two rounds of funding have been run, the most recent closed on the 30th of May 2014. The first round spent $3.65M on two projects, I can’t find details on the second round actually being awarded. It certainly seems as if the fund has not been exhausted but no further funding rounds have been announced.

GGIF

The consistently named Greater Geelong Industry Fund (GGIF) is another Victorian Government initiative. Often lumped in with the GAF, together they are called the Geelong Development Fund.

One round of funding has been run and awarded, there are references to IXL getting $180k for example. The fund seems to have disappeared though, links to it are dead, there are just lots of announcements on its creation. The Department of State Development, Business and Innovation (DSDBI) now the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources (DEDJTR?), which administers the fund only mention it in old financial reports.

The Department Annual Report (page 173) lists grant recipients and shows IXL getting $60k, not the $180k announced in the budget speech. There are six recipients listed for a total of $695k.

I don’t know the details of government grant awarding but it looks like the government announced a $4M fund, awarded $700k with lots of nice press releases all along the way and have since pocketed the remaining $3.3M without anyone saying boo.

R&D Tax Concession

The R&D tax concession is listed on the grant finder, it isn’t a grant but worth mentioning anyway.

This tax deduction has been around for a while and was significantly reworked in 2011. The legislation is actually one of the better references, the AusIndustry web designers simply point at the legislation (without links) whenever you look for details such as who is eligible. The ATO website also has good information.

To summarise (my simplified understanding):
* You must be a company doing R&D work
* You must pre-register for the tax concession
* You receive a tax deduction of 45% of your R&D expenditure
* You must have deductions of at least $20k on R&D (at least $45k expenditure)

The tax concession seems to be designed for established companies not early phase startups such as myself. Without paying a salary I probably won’t reach $45k, I am certainly not planning to spend that much. My expenditure is also going to be split across two financial years.

As a tax deduction it is also far more useful for businesses that make a profit, which I don’t have, yet.

Optus-Innov8 Seed

This Optus/SingTel funded “grant” looks like standard VC seed funding (money for equity) that they have somehow gotten listed on grant websites. It is the kind of deceptive amoral manoeuvre that VCs specialise in, I am surprised more haven’t listed themselves.

Industries for Today and Tomorrow

Industries for Today and Tomorrow is a Victorian Government program run out of the Regional Development Victoria office. It is designed to assist medium to large businesses grow and increase employment.

Technology Development Voucher

The Technology Development Voucher is a small grant up to $50k for small to medium sized technology based businesses. It is designed for discrete work with a supplier such as a design firm. I was hoping to use it to help fund the required product certifications. However the program was suspended after the recent Victorian change of government and there is no indication of if it will resume or be replaced.

EIP

The Entrepreneurs’ Infrastructure Programme is a substantial Federal business assistance program introduced in 2014. It replaces eight previous industry participation programs and is designed to be a one stop shop for business support and growth. A private grant consulting group provides a solid summary.

The EIP has three branches which seem to operate independently.
* Business Management – Breaks down into four offerings, partially funded consultant run evaluations which can then lead to assistance with supply chain, growth services or growth grants.
* Research Connections – Linking businesses with universities and CRCs with funding for the collaboration.
* Accelerating Commercialisation – Assisting and funding businesses to commercialise their concept.

Of the three the branch I am interested in is Accelerating Commercialisation. This has several offerings, the portfolio, commercialisation advisers, the expert network and grant funding.

The portfolio is a list of businesses who have applied, 554 so far. Not much more to it but we can run up some quick interesting stats, I have included some tables at the end of this section. In particular the number of registered businesses relative to population shows some surprising growth areas.

The Commercialisation Advisers are a small group of individuals with prior senior experience in growing companies, most are either practising consultants or VCs. All portfolio members are assigned an advisor to assist them with high level advice, they also assist with the application process. There is also an RFT process which hasn’t yet been completed for commercialisation advisers, it isn’t clear how this relates to the existing group.

The Expert Network is a larger group of experienced advisors, either domain experts or individuals with experience growing companies. The list of experts is confidential, the commercialisation adviser arranges the link between the participant and the expert. Interestingly experts aren’t paid, which suggests that the commercialisation adviser probably is.

In addition to joining the portfolio an applicant can apply for grant funding. This has a stricter assessment process and limitations on what the grant money can be used for. All grant funding must be matched.

I am considering applying to join the portfolio, I don’t think applying for funding is likely to be successful or worthwhile at this point. Assistance in navigating the business world would be rather useful though.

Technology  
Manufacturing, Engineering & Design 228
Software & Web Design 185
Computer Systems & Hardware 72
Biotechnology 69
Market  
Health & Medical 122
Business & Communications 93
Agriculture & Food 78
Energy, Mining & Resources 69
Infrastructure & Building 54
Defence, Security & Safety 40
Entertainment, Tourism & Sport 31
Automotive, Aviation, Marine & TCF 24
Education & Training 21
OEM 20
Textiles, Clothing & Footwear 2
Region Count Population (k) Count per 100k
QLD 150 4676 3.2
VIC 133 5769 2.3
NSW 131 7439 1.8
WA 68 2526 2.7
SA 38 1675 2.3
ACT 17 383 4.4
TAS 14 513 2.7
NT 3 242 1.2
Surf Coast 3 26 11.5
Greater Geelong 1 222 0.5

Microwave project managing – week 4

Camera Investigation

Some minor updates on the camera investigation front. The Seek Thermal camera has arrived and I have had a brief play with it. It is nice, my only criticism is that the resolution sits in an uncomfortable spot. The resolution is far higher than previous thermal cameras with the very big blocks of data, it looks much more like a normal camera. Which is a bit of a failing, because the resolution is very low and bad for a normal camera.

I haven’t been able to start to work with it though. As it is designed to plug in to a phone directly the USB port is the wrong way round (male). I have ordered a USB cable which should fix this for me but it hasn’t arrived yet, expecting it on Monday.

The Panasonic Grid-Eye has also been delayed. The Panasonic staff member set me up with Braemac to arrange the details of the purchase. Unfortunately a full week has passed and Braemac hasn’t bothered to send me an email. If there isn’t any movement soon I’ll get them to line up Avnet instead.

Screen Investigation

Finding a screen to go with my Banana Pi is proving to be a bit messy, particularly a touch screen. It is looking like I will have to bond a screen, touch screen and protective layer. Very doable but a bit more work. I also have to decide on a screen size, the standard ratios don’t gel well with the control panel strip.

Scales

I have been looking in to electric scales. They are essentially a strain gauge, a thin wire that is glued to the top of a metal block. As the block moves the wire is stretched and its resistance changes. The change is minor but with the wiring looping a few times and a bit of amplification… you have a set of scales.

The down side is that you have to have a metal block that moves up and down, which is bulky. To compensate for temperature and keep the accuracy up the standard load cell is an aluminium block 5cm thick with a hole machined out of the middle to give it some flex. There are special thin designs, as used in normal kitchen scales, with reduced accuracy and lifespan.

The biggest issue though is I need to get the weight concentrated on a specific point of the load cell. I am assuming putting the load cell in the microwave field wouldn’t work, so I have to transfer the load through the base of the microwave using small holes, then concentrate it to a point. Another option is to have four sensors and bring the load down on four points. Either way I am probably looking at a custom piece of plastic to distribute the weight. Custom plastic = setup costs = unhappiness (and more research).

No Turntable

Another feature I have been looking at is incorporating a mode stirrer which allows the turntable to be disposed of. A microwave forms standing waves in the chamber, these produce hot and cold spots in the food. The turntable is a really nice cheap trick to work around this problem, by rotating the food it hopefully moves through a number of hot and cold spots and roughly equals itself out. The mode stirrer is another approach, basically you put a fan in front of the microwave beam breaking it up and spraying it around the cavity. This disruption of the beam avoids the standing wave, essentially you get lots of different short lived wave patterns, and you shouldn’t get hold and cold spots. In practice the distribution is more even but it isn’t conclusive if it is better or worse than a turntable. The technique has been around for a long time and seems to have come in and out of favour. The current mode stirrer designs market themselves as allowing a bigger usable space in the microwave.

I am interested in using the mode stirrer because it makes other elements of my life a bit easier. Notably the camera would work a lot better if the food you were looking at didn’t keep moving. I could compensate for the movement in software, but avoiding the problem seems easier. I also think the scales would be much harder to achieve with a turntable.

Unfortunately Alibaba (where I have sourced almost all my other parts) has let me down and nobody seems to sell them. The mode stirrer is a thin metal component which would be fairly simple to make but must be done very precisely. It is also a bit of fiddly RF design and as I have sworn off doing dark magic for lent it isn’t something I really want to tackle myself. There are clearly people making them, I just might have to work a bit to find them.

As an interesting side note the current Panasonic designs with mode stirrers have chosen to place the stirrer in the bottom of the unit rather than the top, the historically standard location. I’m not sure if this was motivated by improved performance or cost, it does make the base feel oddly fat. Not something I am looking to follow suit in either way, I am currently pondering putting it in the side.

Other work

I also spent a considerable period of time this week learning about companies, talking to accountants and reading exciting government websites. Trying to figure out if I start a company now, play on as a sole trader and start a company later or go with a company & trust structure. Currently leaning towards delaying the company founding but there are lots of little pros and cons to weigh up.

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