You’ve got a product ready but things don’t seem to work well. Maybe it’s the battery life, which doesn’t last long enough, or maybe unreliability, high costs, or bugs that show up out of nowhere. It’s a situation faced by many companies, and one Trago faced as they were preparing to launch.
Trago is a company that came up with the idea to create a smart bottle cap, one that allowed athletes and other users to track their drinking during the day. Brothers Davis and Jac thought of it after seeing people almost collapsing during sports events due to severe dehydration. There were several stories in the press about athletes dying due to heat stroke. Since Hydration is an important aspect of performance, Trago set out to build a great product people and athletes alike would love to use, and one that would help coaches to ensure their athletes were being monitored.
Starting with a concept and mechanical design, they began to develop a system with a design house which began designing the system architecture and prototypes. Although the initial devices showed promise of working, they were still far from a finished product. Soon enough, issues appeared. The system could measure the water level, but it could be inaccurate at times. Making things worse, it would miss measurements completely and the battery consumption was high, lasting a week or less. Integration with iOS and Android also proved challenging, as there was no well-defined communication protocol. Added to all this was the fact that all updates of the device would need to be done manually – there was no mechanism for reprogramming.
After spending some months with the current design house, Trago’s Jac and Davis decided that a drastic change was needed. The product was late to deliver to their supporters since the issues prevented manufacturing the units in mass. The original design house couldn’t quite resolve the issues. Among the many people consulted by Trago were Nordic Semiconductor, the vendor for the Bluetooth chipsets. Surely there was a company that had familiarity with Bluetooth and could help get the system out the door, Trago thought.
Nordic, one of the leading Bluetooth Low Energy IC vendors, had a few recommendations, but one stood out. A small design house near Dallas, Argenox, had been working with Nordic’s chipsets for several years and even had done work for Nordic itself. They had experience with the some of the very issues Trago was facing, and their expertise was squarely in wireless systems.
Nordic put Trago in touch with Argenox. After a few days of setup, Argenox’s own CEO, Gustavo, quickly began going over the product with the engineering team, analyzing it to understand what was happening, what needed to be fixed and what was working. The team at Argenox began evaluating everything, from the hardware schematics, the PCB layout, firmware, and the architecture. Over the span of a few days they got a better picture of the system. The results were sobering – some things had gone right, but the system core did not. But would Trago want to hear the news? Some of the issues required drastic redesign and would require new designs, but waiting would delay the product’s launch. These are not news that companies want to hear, but there was no other choice.
Argenox let Trago know that a call was needed to go over everything, which happened the following week. The news, as expected, were difficult to accept. Argenox found that the complete product architecture should be overhauled. The original designers had split up the system to use a radio, a microcontroller, and multiple other devices. This made the Trago bottle expensive, more difficult and risky to assemble, and prevented the use of features such as firmware updates over the air. The current system architecture of the system also consumed more power, something the Trago team focused on relentlessly to make the product easy to use. There were other issues, such as a very small and inefficient antenna and a problematic RF section. This seemed to explain the range issues, disconnections and other problems Trago had seen in the products.
The change to a single chip solution Argenox suggested had been implemented before with other customers. It was drastic, but would improve everything in the bottle. Perhaps most significantly, the BOM cost of the system would be reduced, potentially by 40%-50%. This meant Trago, as a small company, could build more bottles with the same budget and could show greater profit to their investors, which would allow further investment.
After more discussion, Trago needed time to make a final decision. The team came back within a few days to agree with Argenox’s assessment – changing the architecture was the best solution long term. The previous design house wanted to continue to patch up the product as is, which it had been for months. The cost savings expected, both from the reduced BoM and easier maintenance, would help. Having the Over-The-Air Firmware Update capability would mean some features could be left for later, speeding up delivery of the product since Trago was under pressure from their supporters to deliver (not an uncommon issue when funding from KickStarter or Indiegogo).
Argenox began the hard work of re-engineering everything. Some parts of the system, like the power subsystem, remained the same, while others were completely overhauled. The Ultrasonic measurement mechanism was slightly updated, but remained mostly the same (the software was improved and tested significantly later on). The Bluetooth and control subsystems were re-designed from the ground up. Because of the tight timeline, Argenox had to push hard, with its engineering team working day and night to get a new design out the door. In the day preparing the design, and at night working with its suppliers to make sure production would be seamless. The hardware redesign itself would take less than a week, amazingly fast considering the work to be done. Luckily Argenox had done many Bluetooth designs before.
Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the re-design was the firmware, which had to be completely ported to the ARM processor, as opposed to the 8-bit device in place earlier. This meant painstakingly going after each module, understanding what could be reused and what could not. The firmware was re-architected based. Ultimately the Bluetooth architecture, how the device communicates with a smartphone, was changed to lower the power consumption and make it easier to get the water measurement data without losing it.
The initial hardware prototypes arrived in a few weeks after the re-design, and the hard work had paid off even better than expected: the hardware worked fully and didn’t require any changes or a re-spin of the design, which would have added delays to the process. While this what every hardware engineer wants, the reality is that often it takes a couple of revisions to work out all the issues in a design. Since even a small mistake can sometimes completely render a design unusable, it was no small feat that the engineers at Argenox managed to speed up the process and got it working in one fell swoop.
The development of the Trago bottle continued for a few more months as the firmware began to take shape. The teams at both companies worked together to refine and improve the user experience, add features, test and reduce the power consumption. Ultimately, Trago was able to build thousands of units and shipped the product to Amazon and other vendors.
Trago’s story is not unusual. At Argenox, we’re often called to help bring expertise to systems, industrial and consumer, that other companies can’t deal. Because we deal with wireless systems from the hardware to the cloud, we have better visibility to resolve difficult engineering problems. If Trago’s story is similar to yours, get in touch with our team. We’ll find a way to get you going.