Upverter’s Zak Homuth: On-demand Engineering to Assist Design
June 22nd, 2017 by Peggy Aycinena
It’s impossible not to enjoy a fast-paced conversation with Upverter co-Founder and CEO Zak Homuth. Upverter offers a collaborative, cloud-based PCB design tool, and now this month has added EE Concierge.
Homuth started our recent phone call by referencing a conversation we had in 2015: “It’s been a long, hard fight since that time, but our new product is working well and we are excited about it. With it, we are shifting our focus even more towards on-demand engineering.
“Our new product – EE Concierge, the Electrical Engineering Concierge Service – is an evolution of the real-time, on-demand, virtual assistant for PCB engineers that we experimented with back in 2015.
“Now it’s a completely separate product that can be used by any hardware engineer in the world, with any ECAD tool like Altium or Eagle [Autodesk]. It’s not just for Upverter users, hardware engineers today – the people responsible for every new device you buy – have their own team of engineering assistants.”
I asked Homuth to define on-demand engineering.
He said, “We think there are a bunch of jobs which are kind of grunt work – you don’t need an engineer to do them. But if you are going to engineer something, somebody has to do those jobs.
“With our new product, engineers can focus on design, moving at a faster pace than ever before – instead of spending huge amounts of time doing menial, error-prone work like copying PDF data sheets into their CAD software.
“We’re trying to take all of those crappy jobs, and get other people to do the work quickly and with high quality. That’s on-demand engineering.”
To build the Concierge tool, Homuth said, “We started with parts, symbols and 3D models and [kept] our average part cost at $35. That’s equivalent to about 20 minutes of your time on a project, so now you get to do something else that’s probably a better use of your time.”
“What is an engineering assistant?” I asked.
“That’s what we’re calling the guys who do this work,” Homuth replied, “although it’s actually kind of a misnomer, because a lot of it is in the software. Particularly as we are building in machine intelligence to train the algorithm and output the data [more accurately].”
“Actually,” he added, “it’s messier than that. We have a bunch of people working on the job, and we use software that does a couple of things [to coordinate their efforts]. The software orders all of the jobs in the queue, so they’re worked on in the right priority.
“Then it checks the work after its done, and decides if another engineer needs to do the task again to check the results. That may be done three, four, or fives times to be sure the data is correct. The software has a bunch of rules in it to catch errors – the kind of errors associated with this or that type of part.
“In the end, it takes that nugget of data and uses it to decide if the part is ready, is good enough to ship to the customer where it’s converted to the customer’s preferred style guide. Most companies want their parts with this or that attribute, and named this or that.”
“Does the customer do that customization, or is it done by the EE Concierge software?” I asked.
“We normally help them to do it,” Homuth replied. “We go through their style guide, digest it into the software, and customize it for them. But they can also go in on their own and change the settings.”
“Parsing out parts of a project always raises questions about the proprietary nature of the design process,” I said. “Have you addressed that?”
“The thing with parts,” he replied, “they’re protected by the security of the system. The user has to log in, and they’re the only ones who can see the request.
“For the guys who work for us, they don’t know who they’re doing it for. We cut the project into small pieces, so they don’t know.
“Their [assignment] is just to make a symbol or a footprint. It’s very hard to take a lot away from that; they don’t have enough of the puzzle pieces to tie it all together.”
“Although,” Homuth added, “with PCB layout, you have got a lot more of the actual design data. So again, we cut the project onto little pieces, assign them, and then merge it all together at the end.”
“It’s not perfect,” he acknowledged. “We would rather have a holistic view of the design.
“But using our software, we can layout the design in one-tenth or one-twentieth of the time it would take for a single engineer to do the whole design alone. And that’s really neat.”
“You don’t know what the vase looks like if you only can see the shards of glass?” I suggested.
Homuth said, “Yes, although if they work on enough jobs, perhaps our people could get a holistic idea of the project. But with 50 people working on the platform, any of them only gets 1/50 of the picture at most. And they never get any customer information.
“Additionally, at the end of the day they can’t export it because they’re working inside the Upverter editor. They could only let out [the part design] if they screen-shotted it and then reproduced it.
“Also, we have contracts and legal agreements with all of the people we work with. We trust them.”
“How do you find your people, and where are they located?” I asked.
“They tend to be in Eastern Europe, India and China,” Homuth said, “where they’re better at data entry. There’s something about Western engineers – we just suck at that. Maybe engineers [in those other locales] are more used to it.
“They started out as Upverter users, normally design services contractors. Based on their usage pattern, we knew they [would be appropriate] and asked them to work with us directly.
“That’s how we started finding people, but now it’s mostly referrals from the people who work for us. Kind of like: I drive for Uber, and now you should drive for Uber too.”
“At this point,” Homuth added with candor, “we have more a demand problem than a supply problem. We now have the [capability] to process hundreds and hundreds of design parts, so we need more customers who need one-off parts. We are demand constrained, not supply constrained.
“Originally, we were stuck on the supply side – we just couldn’t hire enough good people. But as our software got better, things changed. Now we have a one-in-a-thousand error rate, 0.1 percent, and we’re building AI into the software to help with design.”
“It sounds like a very diligent and purposeful journey,” I offered.
“Yeah,” Homuth said. “we like to pretend that we knew what we were doing from the very beginning.
“When we were working on Upverter, the single biggest problem we saw among our customers was that they couldn’t find the part they were looking for, so we built the first version of EE Concierge.
“[Meanwhile], I spent 12 hours a day building parts for Upverter, but our quality rate was terrible and many errors got through. We learned from that experience, and we knew we had to do it – to bash our heads against the wall, and then do it better. And finally we succeeded. Now you can use Concierge with Altium, Eagle, and soon with the Cadence tool.”
“Okay, so why Toronto?” I asked.
“We did have a small office in San Francisco,” Homuth said, “and we had people there for a little while, but we couldn’t justify the cost. The cost of living was 4 times as high, the cost of pay was 2 times as high, and people would only stay for 6 months.
“Now we’re solely in Toronto. Our operating costs are only 12-percent of our overall costs, our salaries are reasonable, we’ve been around for 7 years, and we have steady employees.
“It’s downtown, everyone wants to live in the city, and they know to work on a computer. We have access to every talented person in Canada and we can hire immigrants. These days we also have a lot of interest from Americans wanting to come here. It’s a nice city – fun, clean and relaxed.
“If we had spent the capital we raised in ‘style’ – we would have failed as a company years ago. Yeah, we’re a little removed from Silicon Valley but we’ve gotten a lot out of being here, and lost only a little by not being there.
“After all, everybody speaks the same language, the Internet looks the same, and it has not done us a disservice to be here. Going forward, if we need to set up in Europe because of our contractors being in those time zones, or in Asia, we will do that.”
“You say you don’t have a grand plan, but to be honest it sounds like you do.” I said.
Homuth chuckled, “I wish I could say that we have a grand plan. But it’s enough that we have managed to stay alive and have continued to innovate – and we’re excited about the future.”
Tags: Altium, Autodesk/Cadsoft Eagle, Cadence, EE Concierge, PCB Design, Toronto, Upverter, Zak Homuth