From Pierpaolo Bubbio, R&D Director, Panini
So, why R&D in the first place, and why is our innovation team designed this way? Let’s start from the beginning…
To build an electromechanical device, we need to master a certain set of skills and ensure they’re part of the team, ready to jump in the game when needed. Let’s focus on our soon-to-be-launched technology as the most recent example. We start from a functionality idea on paper, and our first thoughts are about the processing power it will need, the kind of operations it is called to perform, and how much time we can afford to wait for mission critical tasks. For example: how long can we wait for a finger to be recognized before it’s uncomfortable? One second? Half a second? More?
Well, these kinds of questions are dropped on the table by the electronic designer, whose first task is to identify the cheapest architectural options. As soon as board options begin to surface, OS experts and firmware developers enter the game. The first group is because we often run an Operating System on our boards, Linux mainly. This new technology is, in effect, a custom Linux PC; but the point is that Linux has no idea how our unit is built and could never boot up without being carefully instructed on how to access storage, memory, interfaces and so on. This is why our experts literally rebuild Linux from its source code (it is public), and later bend it to our needs which, believe me, is an obscure and arcane activity. Firmware experts join the game soon afterwards, the firmware being all the low-level “glue” we don’t suspect is there. We identify it as the part of the software more tightly dealing with hardware so it must be very well written, concise, and as bug-free as possible, because it lives so close to the hardware that any issue could be devastating to the device.
But is the above all there is to designing new technology? No. We just developed a board booting Linux and doing nothing, think of it as your mobile phone showing the wallpaper with no apps… not so appealing, right?!? Well, the next step is now to organize a developing system around this “special” system and start writing “the app”, which, for this new technology, is everything the customer will see and use. So, next comes a greeting display, a WEB interface, and an application able to communicate in LAN and Wi-Fi. Then, the ability to capture fingerprints with a camera and to verify them against other data sources… in a totally secure way. Not easy and very critical because this is what Panini’s new technology is all about from a customer perspective, and how it will be perceived.
So then is the project finally complete? Not yet…
What you have so far is a running board with plenty of cables dropped on the desk, but customers need a physical device with a shape, a colour, an industrial design which is nice to see and use. Additionally, the manufacturing plant needs an assembly solution that can be reliably put together on a line for thousands of times, always getting the same result. This is where the mechanical designer comes into play, their choices will influence unit look, feel, size, usability, and cost. And this is not the “true” end yet either, because the unit must be later submitted to regulatory authorities for electrical and mechanical security, all those boring little stamps you find on the sticker on the bottom of the unit.
In a nutshell, the above is the process that our R&D team must put in place for all new technology development, aiming for no errors, and this is why the team must be knowledgeable, skilled, close-knit, and strong. Capable of tackling multiple activities...together.
In the world of start-ups, we hear a mantra which is “hardware is hard”; well, you now you have an inside look as to why.