Building Countdown: Hand Assembling the Electronics
Bringing a new toy or piece of tech to market is a painstaking process. No matter what you envision or plan, once your shiny new object lands in the hands of someone else (especially when your target audience is kids).. they'll immediately find something wrong. Some button is too hard to press, some light too bright or dim, some combination of standing on one foot while looking with only their left eye prevents some feature from working.
And have I mentioned how good kids are at foiling your best-laid plans? After months of testing, we've come to the conclusion that if you could give a group of kids an armored tank, they would find a way to break it... in minutes. They're amazing like that!
In order to keep up with our testing plans and testers themselves, we have to create a lot of Countdown hide and seek toys. Unlike manufacturing, where thousands of identical units are stamped out, during development, we need hundreds of units that change a little (or a lot) each time. Unfortunately, there's not an easy way to automate everything at small scales to accomplish that goal. While it's true that our 3D printer is running non-stop 24 hours a day, every day, there are some things that just have to be done by hand at this stage of development. It's the only way to allow for maximum flexibility and rapid turnaround times. The main focus of this post, and the item that requires the most elbow grease at this point, is the electronic circuit board we developed.
What is the Electronic Circuit Board?
The circuit board is what makes everything tick. It's where all the sensors, interactive elements and the 'brain' (as my mother would call it) of the game lives. Everything a user engages with for Countdown ends up on the circuit board:
- The pushbuttons record the player's input
- The screen shows the player what puzzle they're on, how much time is left or what to do next
- The lights are a critical feedback feature and play element of each game
- A sound processor pushes out sounds of joy and defeat through the speaker
- The processor is what ties everything together by taking the button inputs and deciding what to do next in the gameflow
How It's Made
We design each board on a computer and decide how each part connects together, going so far as laying out each individual wire (all those light green lines) on the board. Once we double, triple and quadruple check everything, we send the design off to a manufacturer to create green boards in the picture. A little over a week later, they're delivered.. without any of the components mentioned above attached. At this point, it's little more than a paperweight... albeit a bad one, it weighs less than an ounce on it's own!
A Gift Basket From Arrow
Well, not necessarily a gift, but we can arrange it like one for pictures! Arrow.com is a distributor for tens of thousands of electronic parts. As an Arrow Certified Partner, Pressure Games gets a great discount on everything we need, free delivery and technical assistance when needed. It's a great program and we're extremely happy (and proud) to be a part of it. Through Arrow, we order the parts we need, they're delivered the next day and with bare circuit boards in hand, we're ready to go.
This is where the tedious part comes into play. Members of our team sit down one day a week and manually places each component on the boards. Assembling is a matter of putting a special metallic glue (solder) onto those shiny metal places and then, with tweezers, placing each part in the right spot. We have charts and maps to help find exactly where everything goes.
It may not sound too bad, but until you understand the size of some of the components, it's hard to fully comprehend. Of the ~45 parts that have to be placed, about 35 of them are the size of a pencil tip: just .02" wide.
The process is time consuming, but after a few hours of work, our team pushes out about 10-15 boards. Once the boards have the parts on them, they have to be heated in a special oven to melt the metallic glue and hold the parts on the board permanently. Baking each board takes about 10 minutes, which adds a few more hours to the process.
Our 3D printer is able to make 2 cases per day, so the boards from more than week's supply to send out and get feedback on. The following week, the process repeats incorporating any changes to the design we can to make the newest release even better.