Last week I had a great opportunity to visit Ottawa, Ontario in Canada to tour the headquarters of Ross Video Systems. My host was my friend Nigel Spratling, who invited me up to talk video switchers. We had some great discussions about all sorts of video-related topics, including a fascinating discussion on lip synch. I wish I could recount that for you here, but I think it would be best to try to get Nigel to join us on Church Tech Weekly one week to talk about that.
On the second morning, we drove out into the country to the small town of Iroqouis, where Ross Video began. Most of the manufacturing is handled there, and while the current plant is packed to the gills, a new expansion will be breaking ground in a few weeks.
Now, I suspect you're a bit like me and don't really put much thought into the process of building the tools we rely on to do our jobs. Seeing the plant was very eye-opening. One of the first things you notice is the blue dots on the floor. That's a "do not cross" line; at least without anti-static straps. Because the CMOS and other chips are so sensitive, you're not allowed to cross that line without special anti-static straps on your shoes. Every rolling rack has a chain below it to keep static from building up. Apparently, a simple static discharge could fry an entire chip; and given the costs of those chips, that could be a very expensive proposition. I made sure not to touch anything!
The other thing you notice about Ross is that they are a full manufacturer. Whereas many other players in the video system game are really R&D and design firms, Ross actually makes everything in house. Obviously, they don't make the chips or other electronic components, but they build the boards, assemble everything, test it and ship it out of that facility (and two others in town that will be folded into the expansion space soon).
They make extensive use of SMT (Surface Mount Technology) machines. Components such as resistors, caps, and other little electronic bits arrive in reels or in trays. Automated pickers take those parts and put them on the board that has already been covered in solder paste. Once the parts are in place, it goes through an oven that carefully heats the board up to melt the solder, then cools it off again. This has to be done very precisely or the thermal shock could break something inside the chips. Since they use lead-free solder, this process is a littler harder than it used to be. Everything they make is RoHS compliant and lead-free.
Some of the chips are mounted using Ball Grid Array (BGA) technology. Instead of a chip with hundreds of little mounting pads sticking out of it, or small pins that go into a socket, BGA chips have hundreds of little balls of solder on them (one they showed me had roughly 1100 or so). The chips have to be placed perfectly, the oven needs to be smooth enough to not jostle the chip out of place, and it has to heat all the solder perfectly evenly so that all the balls melt at exactly the same time. If one doesn't melt right, the chip might not work. Or it might, but only after it warms up. Or it may work intermittently. Imagine trying to troubleshoot that!
They also have a camera system that compares the boards coming out of the SMT machine to an ideal sample. The computer will look for parts that are out of place, oriented incorrectly or any other anomalies. I'm told this picks up roughly 2/3's of the issues that happen during the manufacturing process. Visual inspection catches the rest. If the camera does pick up any anomalies, the process can be adjusted in real-time, saving them from producing a whole batch of boards with something wrong (say a wrong resistor value).
Each board is bar-coded, inspected and tested to be sure it works perfectly. They even have a camera that looks at a panel full of LEDs, detects variations in the brightness of the individual buttons, then re-programs the board to ensure each button looks the same!
Once a system is assembled, it goes through a complete burn-in test. Each and every piece of gear from an Open Gear card to a Vision 4 switcher gets burned in. I'm told their "infant mortality rate" is below 2% now; which is indicative of a really good production process.
One of the biggest advantages to building in-house, they said, is the tight integration between designer and builder. When the designers are working on a new component, they can talk to the guys on the manufacturing line to determine the best way to lay it out so it can be produced efficiently, tested thoroughly and last for a long time.
Manufacturing processes have always fascinated me; and this was truly eye opening. Ross is set up as a high-mix, low-volume plant; meaning they produce a small number (relatively) of a lot of items. That means most of the cost to produce a batch of anything is really in the set up of the process. Once the machines are programmed and loaded up, they just turn out product. Getting there, however, takes some time and effort.
As we talked, it became clear why professional production products cost so much. The volume is low, yet the stakes are high (the stuff has to work). It would be a lot more cost effective to run 100,000 CrossOver 12s; but they'd never sell that many. So in effect, we're almost buying custom product.
I was impressed with everyone I met at Ross. Maybe it's because they're Canadian, and just terribly polite, but everyone, without exception was welcoming and nice. There was a sense of calm in the plant, even though they were all very busy. Each one seemed glad to see me, and gave the impression they could help if I called and needed some help. That's something to think about when buying production gear.
All in all, it was a great trip. I learned a lot, and feel like I've made some new friends. It's good to know Ross products are built with care, and they tell me they have some exciting new products in development. I'm told that if we like Carbonite, we'll really like what's next.