The COVID-19 pandemic is a global tragedy with repercussions playing out at the widest possible scale. On top of the large loss of human life, there have been ripple-effects impacting nearly every industry all around the world – including self-service kiosks.
One of the biggest challenges that Advanced Kiosks had to face during this time was related to the availability of parts. Our self-service products rely on a small niche of technology suppliers for many peripherals.
Camera boards are an excellent example. All computer kiosks with camera functionality must have a camera board securely mounted in the kiosk. Losing access to a supplier providing us with such an important part has critical repercussions throughout the entire production line. All of a sudden, a $75 part can stop us from shipping tens of thousands of dollars of equipment.
The Supply Chain Domino Effect
When unforeseen events disrupt the delivery of business-critical components, it threatens nearly all existing and future orders. Camera functionality is vital for many self-service touch screen kiosks, and in most cases, there is no way to replace or circumvent that functionality.
This is a supply chain problem that has, unfortunately, become common. Parts availability is likely to form the backbone of the “second shock” effect of the global coronavirus pandemic and is already demonstrating a troubling pattern where manufacturers shut down despite high demand for their products, and foreign direct investment dwindles.
At Advanced Kiosks, our initial response was the same common-sense approach that any technology manufacturer would take. We simply purchased different camera boards from other parts suppliers.
While these new boards met our quality control standards, they presented an unexpected design problem for our production team – they were the wrong size and we did not have brackets to mount them. Computer kiosks are not known for having a great deal of “wiggle room” when it comes to their interior parts, especially cameras that have to be held in place. For this reason we had to adjust our kiosk design which held up manufacturing to accommodate the new boards.
This required remaking the metal brackets that we use to hold our delicate camera boards in place. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be an expensive and time-consuming process, resulting in order delays and unacceptable losses. “We were finding 5 or 20 camera boards but not the quantities that we needed in the same model or configuration,” said Purchasing Manager Keith Cuningham. “This meant we needed a custom bracket for each board. This would take 2 to 3 weeks to make and no sheet metal shop wants to make just 5 brackets, so the cost was very high.”
3D Printing Comes to the Rescue
The solution to our problem was unexpectedly simple. Prior to the global health crisis, Advanced Kiosks had purchased an Ultimaker S5 3D printer for creating mockups and test components. It turns out that this device can also create strong, resilient holding brackets for internal kiosk components at a far lower price than it costs us to remake our metal brackets. We reached out to our 3D printing supplier, Technology Education Concepts, Inc., also in Concord NH, to help us with a different 3D print material that would hold up to higher stresses and temperatures. “The big switch was going from PLA to PC plastic, or from a Polylactic acid to a Polycarbonate, and learning the details of this material,” said President Howard Horn. “We also have our own in-house 3D hobbyist, Jeff LeBlanc, our head of UX, who helped a lot. He got most of his experience printing a full Iron Man costume.”
Instead of trying to find a camera board supplier with larger quantities or risk being late on deliveries, we decided to re-imagine our production processes using new materials and methods to solve an otherwise intractable problem. We upgraded to high-temperature bracket materials that outperform metal and started producing our own holding brackets at a fraction of the cost of accommodating our old metal brackets.
“This kind of out-of-the-box thinking can present novel solutions to a broad range of industry-wide problems created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Often, the solutions to complex challenges only present themselves when you look outside the given context—all you need to do is get creative,” said Horn.
A Better Design
The flexibility of printing with plastic has now come full circle. First we were trying to figure out how we could meet demands, and now we are improving the design. The second revision of the printable camera bracket can not only mount a dozen different types of camera board designs, but it is now adjustable in the kiosk about the axis normal to the field of view. This improved design would have never been possible as long as we were constrained to our old production materials.