Project status: an X-ray (and the latest)
In this update, aside from the latest on the keyboard progress, we’ll make a deep dive into the general status of the project listing all the tasks that are done and the ones pending between now and shipping.
The reasons for this are quite straightforward: first, we’re ten months late with the shipping of the complete Spectrum Next (thankfully at least the board pledges didn’t suffer this much delay) and a retrospective is in order to recap and inform you what has been done so far; and some backers are understandably disappointed with the length of the delay, and requested a detailed account of what’s missing before the completion of the project.
Lastly, we’ll wrap with the rationale underlying the delay -- why it is taking place. While this is no excuse, it helps understand the reason behind our woes in this final stretch.
There are good news here: the issues identified by Phil Candy (and shared in the previous update) on the injection of the keys and the small depression it was causing have been fixed, the keys now meet our expectations and look exactly as they should, including the polished finish around the key surface.
They are now being printed with the labels (characters, commands etc.) and in parallel a test keyboard is being assembled with all the keys (including special keys such as Space, Enter and the like) in order to fit-test in the case. Once this is done, we should be ready for mass injection of the keyboard plastics, mass printing and keyboard assembly pre-shipping to SMS for full computer assembly.
Boards production & Assembly stations
While we have reported in the past that the boards were in production at SMS facilities, there’s a small update: a picture of all the boards done, stored in racks, and the assembly stations where the Spectrum Next is going to be put together, boxed and shipped worldwide. It’s a heart-warming photo for the team, finally seeing where the last step of the project will take place before it goes into the wild and to you, the backers who made the project happen.
Below is a list of all the major steps of the Spectrum Next production. This list is not meant to be exhaustive: some smaller and repeated steps are absent as they don’t help to understand the current progress status. Should you want to learn more about any particular step, or a breakdown of a particular part of the project, drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you.
- Testing proto board v0 (DONE)
- Production board v1 (DONE)
- Final board v2 & v2A (DONE)
- Board update v2B (DONE)
- Testing proto Daughterboard v0 (DONE)
- Production Daughterboard v1 (DONE)
- Final Daughterboard v2 (DONE)
- Firmware v0 (DONE)
- Firmware v1 (DONE)
- Anti-brick (DONE)
- NextOS v1 (DONE)
- First Time Install software (DONE)
- Manual design v0 (DONE)
- Manual design v1 (DONE)
- Manual revision v1,001+ (DONE)
- Final manual (DONE - but still updating!)
- Manual cover art (DONE)
- Case design v0 (DONE)
- Case design v1 (DONE)
- Case CADs (DONE)
- Case molds (DONE)
- Case test injection T1 (DONE)
- Case T1 adjustments (DONE)
- Case test injection T2 (DONE)
- Case T2 adjustments (DONE)
- Final Case test injection (DONE)
- Stripes and light column test injection (DONE)
- Stripes and light column final test injection (DONE)
- Keyboard design v0 (DONE)
- Keyboard design v1 (DONE)
- Keyboard CADs (DONE)
- Keyboard molds (DONE)
- Keyboard test injection T1 (DONE)
- Keyboard T1 adjustments (DONE)
- Keyboard test injection T2 (DONE)
- Keyboard T2 adjustments (DONE)
- Keyboard keys printing test (TO DO)
- Final Keyboard backplate test injection (TO DO)
- Final Keyboard assembly & Case fit test (TO DO)
- Box design v0 (DONE)
- Box design v1 (DONE)
- Box internals v0 (DONE)
- Box internals v1 (DONE)
- Final Box design (DONE)
- Box materials testing, UV layer (DONE)
- PSU procurement (DONE)
- PSU black box replacement design (DONE)
- SD card procurement (DONE)
- SD card tests (DONE)
- SD cards printing (DONE)
- SD cards shipping to UK (DONE)
- Parts procurement v0 (DONE)
- Parts procurement v1 (DONE)
- Parts procurement v2 (DONE)
- Parts procurement v2A (DONE)
- Parts procurement v2B (DONE)
- Parts procurement Daughterboard v0, 1 & 2 (DONE)
- Main Box printing (DONE)
- Main Box shipping to SMS (DONE)
- Post Box shipping to SMS (DONE)
- PSU Box printing (DONE)
- PSU Bos shipping to SMS (DONE)
- Manual printing (TO DO)
- Manual shipping to SMS (TO DO)
- SD cards content copy as SMS (TO DO)
- Just the Board v2A (DONE)
- Just the Board shipping to backers (DONE)
- Burn-in tests 2A (DONE)
- Burn-in tests 2B (DONE)
- Spectrum Next v2B boards (DONE)
- Spectrum Next v2 Daughterboards (DONE)
- Case mass-plastic injection (TO DO)
- Keyboard mass-plastic injection (TO DO)
- Keyboard final assembly (TO DO)
- Keyboard shipping to case production (TO DO)
- Case & Keyboard shipping to SMS (TO DO)
- Final Spectrum Next assembly (TO DO)
- Shipping to backers (TO DO)
It’s important to note that each step has a completely unique timeline and length, meaning each has its own ‘weight’ when calculating the total project duration. Case in point, the keyboard was estimated to be a 3 months process, but has taken 2x longer than predicted; meanwhile the Anti-brick, for instance was done much quicker than expected at 2 days (rather than 2 weeks) and so on.
Why the keyboard and case have been such a long process
Recapping: The major delays of the project were caused by the case and the keyboard. First our plastics manufacturer in charge of the case dropped the project unexpectedly following the departure of their manager handling the Next, forcing a last-minute switch to a new partner earlier this year (which thankfully turned out to be much cooler). The delay on the case affected the keyboard, as these two were meant to be made in parallel due them needing to fit together and their large storage size -- we need to start assembly as soon as they arrive at SMS or we will accumulate large costs for storage, thus they need to be injected at roughly the same time.
As it turned out, the keyboard was more complex and slower to produce than predicted, and now remains the final hurdle to shipping.
At the core of the issue is a problem of scale. In order to manufacture 3,000 cases or keyboards, the partners have to undergo the same amount of work required to manufacture 500,000 cases or keyboards: they have to be designed, tested, molds produced in much the same way, and yet only a fraction will be made and paid for, squeezing their margins if compared to larger projects they regularly undertake.
Thus the partners for both the case and the keyboard are very special people who agreed to undertake the project because they like what we’re building.
It’s not difficult at all to find a company ready to manufacture plastics and keyboards at the small scale we require, this is not a challenge. What is very hard and rare is to find a specialist company, whose standards are as high as the project’s established quality goals, with large amount of experience and ready to undertake a small order such as ours. This is so because companies with these standards and expertise are very sought-after particularly by large projects and big customers.
This is exactly what happened with the plastics provider who let us down early on -- when the internal champion of the project left the company, their replacement decided the project wasn’t worth the time and budget and dropped it.
Water under the bridge, the case is ready thanks to our awesome plastics partner, waiting for mass injection after we put the keyboard and case together in a final fitting test.
The keyboard, though, originally expected to take three months for design and testing, is nearing six months of production now. We’re getting there one step at a time, but it’s taking a long time indeed and there isn’t much we can do about it, as our partner is moving as quickly as they can afford to.
And the manual?
The keen eye might have spotted that we haven’t yet printed the manual or copied the contents of the SD cards. This is so because Phoebus Dokus and the collaborators are constantly revising the manual content, adding new functionalities as soon as they are rolled out and added to both the firmware and NextOS by Gary Lancaster and others. The plan is to lock the manual content as soon as the plastics start injecting, thus printing and dispatching to SMS in parallel to the case and keyboard. This will allow the manual to be as up to date as possible.
And that’s the summary of the project in a nutshell. We’ve been accelerating the keyboard production as of late, now that most adjustments to the keys have been done. Myself, Mike and Phil are in daily contact with the keyboard partner, pushing the production along as fast as we can. Now it’s getting the keys printed, the T2 keyboard assembled and fitted in the case, and full production.
Most people working on the project today are original backers who volunteered their time to help out. We’re as frustrated as any backer with the delay, and as eager to get our Nexts as everyone else. I, for one, can’t wait to have my Next sitting on my desk playing Baggers in Space… We will continue to push and get it out as soon as we can, rest assured.