Pearl Auto embraces Instrumental’s advanced quality system, enabling a small team to go big on quality.
During the most critical stage in the lifecycle of its first product, Pearl Automation, a company working to combine sophisticated hardware and software, leveraged Instrumental’s advanced quality control system to maintain high resolution visibility on their production line. This visibility enabled a small team of engineers to gradually transition daily control of the production line to the China-based contract manufacturer without losing control of build quality.
Pearl is focused on advancing the underlying technologies of autonomous vehicles to improve driver experience and safety on the road today. Founded by former leaders in the Apple iPod and iPhone teams, Pearl’s first product, RearVision, is the world’s most advanced backup camera and alert system.
During a rigorous development process, Pearl’s team used their Apple experience to ensure the product was not only reliable, but of the highest quality. They sent engineers to Asia throughout development in order to understand the issues first hand, and drive what matters: part quality, assembly quality, and yield. They built a solid relationship with their contract manufacturer during this multi-month process, but were entering a new phase with bigger stakes - scaling for production. The leadership team at Pearl knows that maintaining visibility into what's going on in the factory is the key to reacting quickly to the inevitable growing pains of higher volume. Regardless of trust in the supplier, they know that early production is the most critical stage in the product lifecycle. Performance during this time ultimately determines both the quality of product and the timing of delivery for the earliest and most loyal customers.
Pearl knows this is a priority, but unlike Apple, they don’t have the manpower for legions of engineers to be in Asia for weeks and months to keep tabs on product quality. They needed a way to do more with a smaller team: to monitor product quality, keep in lock step with the supplier team, and to have the information they needed to quickly respond to issues -- all without actually being there.
A few weeks before Pearl planned to start building units for customers, they were faced with a choice. They could stretch the existing team to cover early production, rotating through several engineers over the weeks and months. This would accrue significant travel costs, make it difficult to keep everyone on the same page, and affect engineer morale. Alternatively, they considered Instrumental’s new advanced quality monitoring system.
The Instrumental system combines optical test stations that capture photographs and other data from units at key assembly steps with a data pipeline that makes that data immediately accessible to the broader team around the world. Engineers can log into a web application to easily see and inspect the units they care about (by serial number, configuration, date, etc.). “Everyone immediately saw the value in having an extra set of ‘eyes’ in the factory”, said Director of Hardware Product Development at Pearl, Chrissy Meyer. When it came time to discuss putting this novel system on the top-tier contract manufacturer’s line, Pearl “was surprised at how open they were to using the equipment,” said Meyer.
Instrumental equipment began collecting images of all of the key assembly steps for every single unit destined for customers. During this time, there were still engineers on the production line, but over time, many of them returned to headquarters. Instead of gradually losing touch during this transition, the engineering team was able to stay fully engaged. Pearl Product Designer Keith Hendren described a daily routine of reviewing images that had come in overnight. In one case, “we knew we were getting improved parts, so I could check the next morning and see that the final product was better,” said Hendren.
Having a data record of every unit enables the team to be anywhere at any time. Early on, the team was able to spot incorrect wire routing caused by a part quality shift. Hendren says, “even if you were there on the line [in Asia], you could be three stations away and not see this issue.” In another instance, the team used the system to monitor the quality of a potting operation that is critical for maintaining an environmental seal. While 100% of units are tested for this environmental seal on the line, the team has realized they can visually monitor for a shift in the potting process before it creates units that fail the tests. John Brock, Director of Product Design at Pearl, said “using the system to review issues is more efficient than being in the factory,” and it also “enabled people who weren’t in China to be more effective at supporting the team who was.” This is because engineers back at headquarters could highlight evidence in the images overnight for the team on the ground to check out.
Pearl saw an opportunity to further increase the value they got from the Instrumental system by tweaking their assembly line processes. The system is designed to be flexible and able to adapt to the fast-changing factory environment. When Pearl identified a potential risk where enough data wasn’t being collected, Instrumental pushed a remote software update to enable them to start collecting that data hours later. When Pearl wanted to re-route reliability test units back to Instrumental stations to collect post-test images -- the Instrumental software seamlessly handled the new data, enabling pre- and post-test comparisons. The Pearl team also added Instrumental inspection to any units leaving the line for repair so that the team would have a virtual record of that unit and any visual evidence of its failure mode.
Pearl leadership knew from the beginning that one of the big risks of ramping up volumes are shifts in cosmetic quality -- it’s the reason they prioritized keeping “eyes on the ground” in the form of Instrumental’s optical test stations. After a few weeks of steady production, testing revealed a new cosmetic issue that was not explicitly covered in the cosmetic specification. Instead of “sending a team of people to China,” as Meyer describes, the engineering team at Pearl headquarters were able to quickly look through hundreds of images from the suspect batch and identify affected systems without unboxing and re-inspecting the entire batch. Within hours, the engineering team was able to brief executives on the extent of the issue. Additionally, imagery from Instrumental was used to supplement the cosmetic specification and give the factory clear direction going forward. No units had to be shipped back and no engineers had to go to China. Everyone on the team went home that day with the peace of mind that they had the data they needed to handle almost any cosmetic issue that could come up, quickly and efficiently.
The Pearl team implemented the Instrumental system during the critical early production phase of the RearVision product. Hardware engineers, product managers, and operations team members used the system to investigate how and where failures happened on the lines and to ensure cosmetic specifications and assembly procedures were being strictly followed by the factory partner. They augmented emails and video conference communications with marked up images of actual units, ensuring everyone on their team was on the same page, despite language and distance barriers. They studied the images to find concerns they hadn’t seen before and reviewed specific units to provide next steps on new failure modes, and they did all of this from their desks in California.
Overall, the system “allows us to make collaborative decisions faster, and everyone feels better about the decisions being made,” said Meyer. It has also enabled the team to qualitatively track improvements on key quality metrics from week to week.
As Pearl moves into the next phase of its product lifecycle, the Instrumental system continues to keep vigil on the Pearl assembly line. The data that Pearl is using to build high quality products with a small team is normally lost, but by using Instrumental to harvest it, they are saving days of engineering time, travel costs to Asia, and have the peace of mind that the team will be equipped with the data it needs to deftly deal with expected issues that may arise.