Almost a year has passed since the boss of one of South Africa’s largest contract electronics manufacturers took a trip to China to investigate the capabilities required, and the challenges to expect, for manufacturing a complete set-top box for SA’s eventual rollout of digital terrestrial television (DTT) broadcasts. Now Mike Goodyer, the CEO of Microtronix, has shared exclusively with Dataweek the news that the company has achieved that goal.
“Microtronix is currently producing a fully tested and functional set-top box (STB) ready for distribution to consumers,” he says. “Our plan was to start a low-volume rollout in January 2015 as a test and setup phase to ready the factory and train our staff for lager volume production. However, almost six months later we are only now starting our first production runs.”
The obstacles that led to this delay have been largely regulatory and political – the long-running DTT migration débâcle, largely the responsibility of the Department of Communications, has become the stuff of legend and something of a running joke – but Goodyer admits that the technical challenges have been far from trivial, and the learning curve steep.
Careful what you wish for
“My advice to anyone planning to make STBs for the upcoming USAASA (Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa) tender is not to underestimate the steps and setups required to get to this stage,” warns Goodyer. “Manufacturing these boxes at any reasonable rate does require a fair amount of automation and I would say this has been our biggest challenge.
“I know that there are a number of very good, small subcontractors in SA who are very capable of producing hundreds and even a few thousand printed circuit boards (PCB) on a daily or weekly basis by building in batches. Historically this has been the nature of Microtronix’ business in SA and, except for a very small number of contract manufacturers, the balance of the small companies have focused on high-quality, lower-volume runs. Every business owner dreams of that one big order requiring thousands or even tens of thousands of PCBs – but as the age old saying goes: ‘be careful what you wish for’.”
The wait is over
Goodyer acknowledges feeling a great deal of personal satisfaction while witnessing, in late July, the first STBs rolling off the company’s shiny new production lines dedicated to these products. “Although throughput started at a modest rate of about 28 seconds per box, the amount of planning, investment and hard work that it took us to get to that point cannot be overstated,” he explains.
“However, I am confident that Microtronix will be in line to get a substantial number of the government subsidised boxes for the upcoming rollout (due to be announced shortly) and therefore we hope the effort will pay off in the next year or two. The fact that we are currently producing boxes will give us a good head start when the volumes pick up.”
The manufacturer has set up four continuous assembly production lines in anticipation of the upcoming volume requirements, and plans to bring lines 2, 3 and 4 online within the next two months. “This will give us the capability to produce two different models of STB concurrently,” Goodyer reveals. “Microtronix has tendered together with its BEE partners – BUA Africa Telecommunications – and we expect to keep our own lines busy at around the 50% to 60% capacity mark. We have also made plans to offer at least 50% of our available capacity to smaller players who we are sure will also be successful in the STB tender process despite not having factories yet.”
It’s about more than just STB production runs
According to Goodyer, one of Microtronix’ objectives is to empower and help smaller manufactures to establish a footing in the industry, and help them to grow their plants during the course of the STB rollout. “Initially Microtronix will do all the SMD insertion and PCB assembly as well as testing of the PCBs. Later we will help our smaller partners to set up assembly lines, and then incorporate testing and wave soldering processes.”
Microtronix has very strong SMD capabilities and Goodyer envisages doing most of this type of assembly for its partners going forward. “This will effectively mitigate their risk and obviate the need to invest in huge SMD lines that could easily stand idle after the initial wave of boxes is complete. Microtronix currently runs four high-speed SMD production lines for STB and TV board production, in addition to four medium-volume lines for our customers in the industrial electronics sector.
“Our plan is to invest in at least two to three more high-speed SMD production lines and at least two more axial and radial machines to handle the through-hole insertion requirements on these PCBs. Microtronix is also in the process of building a new 6000 m2 factory to accommodate the new production requirements – we hope to be set up and running by December this year. My usual thanks go out to all our loyal customers and suppliers for their excellent support and service,” he concludes.