As easy as Pi

More than one million Raspberry Pi computers have been made in the UK since manufacturing was brought home from China in 2012. Amanda Pauley spoke to the team that made it possible…

Looking at the Raspberry Pi, it’s not hard to believe that this miniature computer became a global phenomenon in the technology world. The Pi is a credit card-sized, barebones computer that uses a smartphone-like ARM processor to provide a basic and extensible computing platform. It plugs into your television and encompasses everything a basic computer needs, such as a processor, graphics and memory, as well as an impressive range of applications, combined with low power consumption. At the heart of Pi’s story is a lesson about how quality can be assured and low cost maintained, all in the UK.

Despite its low retail price (just £30), hobbyists have harnessed the Pi’s power to do astonishing things, such as play musical instruments, control robots using only spoken instructions, and beam photos back from space – a feature known as ‘Pi in the Sky’. Although the innovative device has won the hearts of computer enthusiasts around the world, the Pi’s existence was originally born out of a simple desire to show children how computers work.

Since its launch, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has been on a mission to use the Pi as a way to teach the basics of coding and transform the ICT education experience, playing an important part in the UK’s curriculum debate. Technology giant Google has even recognised the potential of the device to educate the masses, donating 15,000 of the tiny computers to schools across the UK.

In September 2012, the Foundation and its UK distributor, Premier Farnell, decided to stop manufacturing in the Far East and negotiated a deal with Sony to bring production home. Since then, one million units have rolled off Sony’s hi-tech production line, marking a huge milestone for the British computer and UK manufacturing. The four men who made it possible spoke exclusively to QW about bringing manufacturing home, ironing out quality issues and becoming market-defining innovators.

Eben Upton

Raspberry Pi Chief Executive and founder

Raspberry Pi started as a simple idea – to create a device that will inspire computer programming from a young age. Thirty years ago, engineering was encouraged by programmable computers, such as the ZX Spectrums and BBC Micros, but these types of machines no longer exist and as a result, we’ve seen a skills shortage. It was time to create a machine that was all about the niche. Initially, we were manufacturing the Pi in China and getting really good-quality products, but we wanted to bring production home.

Our UK distributor, Premier Farnell, signed a deal with Sony in 2012 to build the device at its contract electronic manufacture facility in Pencoed, South Wales. The component cost element was always going to be tricky on home soil, with the device retailing at £30, but when the technology giant saw a description of the assembly and test complexity, it said it could do it. Sony has a unique reputation for working to a Japanese total quality approach and it’s embedded throughout the organisation. For example, in China we had a quality issue which was occurring at a very low rate – less than 0.3%.

It involved one of the components on the board. Every one in 500 that was built got scrapped and even though the issue wasn’t showing up in the end-user product, it was silently increasing the cost of manufacturing. When Sony took over, it put remediation in the manufacturing process and carried out a valuable piece of debugging for the component supplier, ultimately reducing the cost of the final product. Most companies tend to produce low-volume products in the UK, build the business, and then go high-volume in the Far East, but we did the total opposite. We picked a low price point, stuck to it and had no choice but to manufacture the Pi abroad.

Yet, reshoring was always the plan and it was the coming together of a value chain in which people are low cost, rather than low price, which was the important differentiator. There’s definitely a perception that if you want to build a cheap product, go to China, but I hope the Pi can be an example of how the tide is turning.

“Sony has a unique reputation for working to a Japanese total quality approach and it’s embedded throughout the organisation”

Mike Buffham

Head of Global Product at Premier Farnell

For me, bringing the Pi home was the missing link in the Foundation’s amazing story. It’s a brilliant product that was inspired, designed and engineered in the UK, but ended up being manufactured abroad. It’s what I like to call a ‘nearly typical story’ – isn’t it typical that we have the brains to do this in the UK, but we’re sending manufacturing offshore? It’s easier to manage a supply chain if the manufacturing is in the same place as the creation and initial target market, which is why we reshored. As one of the licensee partners, I initially dealt with the manufacturing in China and driving the supply chain, in terms of component supply.

The complications that come with that are magnified in complexity when you’re trying to sort it out with people on the other side of the world. When bringing the Pi home, initially it was tough trying to make the sums add up to a competitive price and it wasn’t the production or labour costs that were the issue, but the overall component costs. One of our biggest markets is Europe, so landing cost became as important as the factory gate price, and at the time, everything was being flown in from China. My job was to go through every item on the bill of materials, line-by-line, and assess the cost.

Luckily, the product had created a huge amount of interest in the marketplace, so I was able to drive negotiations with a number of critical component suppliers. When I visited Sony’s factory, I was extremely impressed with the quality regime and production engineering capabilities, and knew instantly that they would be the key part of making the Pi in the UK possible. Later we employed an experienced manufacturing manager to manage the processes and relationships with the company on behalf of Premier Farnell. Sony already has great processes in place and if it sees a blip on the numbers, its alarm tends to goes off before ours, but it’s important that our manufacturing manager is on hand for when a problem does strike. Now, the Pi is set to become the best-selling British computer since the 1980s and in a way, it has been somewhat a market definer.

The Pi makers
Eben’s step-by-step guide to manufacturing the Pi:

  1. Printed circuit boards enter the factory in panels of six.
  2. Surface mount components are placed on by robot, on the top and then on the bottom of the board, and reflow soldered.
  3. Automatic optical inspection verifies the placement of the surface mount components and through-hole components are placed on by hand, before being wave soldered.
  4. All panels are inspected by eye.
  5. The boards are then broken out of the panels by hand and inserted into test jigs where they’re tested by an automatic test programme, with a serial number written to a one-time-programmable memory.
  6. Boards are removed from the test jigs and packaged individually by hand for shipment.

Gareth Jones

Senior Manager of New Business Development at Sony UK Technology Centre

Eben was able to come to the Technology Centre in Pencoed to see our operation, what we could do, and our capability and capacity. He’s a very personable guy and I really liked the Foundation’s concept of getting young people interested in coding and engineering. The demand for the product was growing exponentially and we knew we had the capacity to support them. Plus, the ‘Made in the UK’ angle was appealing and as time went on, became a strong part of the device’s success.

The computer is well-designed for mass manufacture and the majority of the components can be auto-mounted onto the Pi’s circuit board. Also, its uncomplicated configuration means it’s easy to test the product in the most effective and time-efficient way. It was also clear that we could make it at competitive cost and to a very high standard. As a brand, quality products are part of our DNA, and we’ve a pretty good reputation for the processes and highly skilled people we employ.

Vendor assessment is rigorous and we’ve spent many months with the Foundation and Element 14, a multi-channel electronic distributor, trawling through the bill of materials and validating any proposed alternative vendors. For example, we were able to take advantage of Sony’s global purchasing power and source reliable, high-quality, bare circuit boards, as well as some of the connectors. By doing this, we achieved the best possible outcome – attaining competitive price and cost points without compromising on the quality of the product. We worked closely with Peter and others to make tweaks to the product, particularly the panel integration and some of the board macros, to improve efficiency and build quality, and now we’re making10,000–11,000 Pi units a day. I feel proud that we were able to play a part in what I think is a fantastic British success story. The media has written reports saying UK manufacturing is dead, but when you visit a factory like ours and see the different skills and types of people needed to make high-technology products, it gives a fresh perspective.

Peter Lomas

Co-founder and Foundation Trustee

The Foundation moved away from Chinese manufacturing because it’s difficult to get the required level of interaction when you’re 8,000km away, in a different time zone and facing a cultural barrier without your own team members on the ground. It also negatively impacts the crucial interaction between design and manufacture to improve the product, either by taking cost out or applying innovation to the manufacturing process. These two areas must work closely and have an appreciation of each other’s challenges in order to help keep a brand competitive. Sony and Premier Farnell were passionate about helping us bring the Pi home because they shared our vision of reversing the trend of children becoming consumers rather than creators.

Every element of the manufacturing process had to be encompassed in the £30 price point, and this wasn’t just the components and assembly of the board, but test and transportation too. Quality is also an important metric as it impacts field returns, and that in turn affects the delivered cost and the consumer’s impression of the product. We did a significant amount of work on design for manufacture to align and optimise the Pi for Sony’s production lines, such as adding tooling holes, changing component footprints and reselecting components that didn’t quite meet the company’s stringent standards. Their team has brand leadership, is skilled at making high-volume products to high-quality levels and has the space to manage the ramp in demand (for example, their factory is the size of a football field). The company’s also passionate about yield and analyses every single failed board. When ironing out finer details, Sony doesn’t say: “We’ve got this issue. Can you sort it, please?” They tell you they’ve noticed an issue, tried three solutions and discuss with you the one that should be implemented.

They proactively care about the products they build, and like us, want to make it the best it can be. At the moment we’re working hard to maximise the performance of the software system so that users get the best experience possible, while also campaigning to get computer science and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects front and centre in the curriculum. The UK is astoundingly good at innovation but we need to give talented people access to the technology, and Raspberry Pi is a great showcase of how to do that.

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