Siddharth Unny, director, TL Micro Automation
Siddharth Unny, director, TL Micro Automation

Q. What is your organisation’s unique selling proposition (USP) for electronics design?
A. Our organisation focuses on complete product design, from concept to ready-for-manufacture. We design keeping in mind manufacturing cost as a key parameter. In electronics, it is fairly simple to put together a few components and get something working, e.g., connect a Bluetooth module to a microcontroller, add a few sensors and voila, you have a smartphone-based home automation system. The challenge is to design such a system to be cost-effective and ready to sell in the market in terms of reliability. So, our USP is that we design keeping cost and reliability as most important requirements and inputs for design.. Our organisation focuses on complete product design, from concept to ready-for-manufacture. We design keeping in mind manufacturing cost as a key parameter. In electronics, it is fairly simple to put together a few components and get something working, e.g., connect a Bluetooth module to a microcontroller, add a few sensors and voila, you have a smartphone-based home automation system. The challenge is to design such a system to be cost-effective and ready to sell in the market in terms of reliability. So, our USP is that we design keeping cost and reliability as most important requirements and inputs for design.

Q: Could you tell us about the design services you offer?
A. We offer complete product development, i.e., from prototype to ready-for-manufacture. We also set up the manufacturing line for clients and can even take care of the manufacturing, as a service. Prominently, we do end-of-line testing and quality testing, maintenance and upgrade. We also exclusively offer services like printed circuit board (PCB) designing, according to requirement.

Q. Tell us about the packages you provide for start-ups.
A. We have come across many start-ups who invest in an idea, reach a stage and then give up. To make sure that does not happen, we offer to evaluate the end-cost of the product and feasibility of a design right at the start, for a nominal fee. We then suggest ideas that would be feasible, according to their requirements. We can even help convert an idea into technical specifications. We also do a detailed costing process that includes vendor charges and development charges.

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Q. What are the key technologies you work on?
A. We work with all kinds of microprocessors and microcontrollers. We aim to be truly platform independent as far as hardware is concerned. We also work with wireless technologies, custom protocols, algorithms, machine control and sensor technologies.

Q. Out of these, what are the technologies you are known for?
A. We are well-known for our strength in wireless. We are especially good at wireless hardware design. We can provide complete solutions in the wireless arena, including custom hardware and software. We optimise our designs for range, size, power, battery life and reliability in message delivery.

Q. Are there any niche industry applications that you focus on?
A. Custom control units for legacy machines and test rigs are two niche applications we focus on. The newer machines come with good human-machine-interface (HMI) and modern control units. We retrofit the older machines that do not have these features, with our control units. This gives them a modern interface as well as enables smartphone-based diagnostics and status, which is the requirement of many of our clients. For test rigs, we provide end-of-line testing capability for many products. This ensures quality before a product leaves the manufacturing facility.

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Q. How do you go about the end-of-line testing process?
A. Once the product is designed, before it goes for shipping, we test to check for mainly manufacturing defects. We write special code and have specific boards that we integrate with the system to be tested. This way, the system is not affected, while errors like soldering defects and loading of wrong software version can be detected and rectified. This is also a very important aspect of quality control.

Q. What are the major circuit/system design projects you are currently working on?
A. We are working on wireless connectivity-based projects and material tracking systems for retail applications. We also focus on providing indoor location services like tracking of material and people within a large building.

We are developing a light-emitting diode (LED) lighting product for the consumer market. This is actually a ‘FUN’ product that is new for us. It is basically a multi-colour LED light with built-in intelligence. You can program it to flash different colours at different times and in different patterns. Depending on the orientation and programming, it can be used in various scenarios – as a flashlight or hazard light; it can even be extended to gamification, like using sensors to make it respond to music. Stuff like these aim to be a relief from a serious atmosphere, are relatively easier to make, cost less, and we find that there is a huge market for this. Even big shots enjoy the small pleasures that go with a product like this.

Q. What kind of work do you do in the automotive domain?
A. We offer design consultancy for tier-1 and tier-2 companies. This is mainly in the control units sector, while we are also capable of infotainment designs.

An Internet of Things perspective…

Q. How do you see the Internet of Things (IoT) phenomenon? Do you see it driving business growth for India’s independent design houses (IDHs) or is it more of a marketing gimmick?
A. I think IoT is in its early days. But it is a sector that has huge potential, maybe one or two years down the line, and hence, no design house can ignore this sector. Government initiatives like smart city projects are giving a boost to the IoT.

In the private sector, what is required is funding of hardware start-ups or product start-ups. This is not happening much. So, lot of IoT enthusiasts are developing prototypes. But without funding, products will not happen.

The role of design houses will increase in this space only if people get the necessary funding required to convert a prototype into a product.

Q. Is this a priority area for your firm for future growth too?
A. Yes. We feel IoT will be very important in the next two years. We are already working with product idea owners to help develop prototypes. Product development in this space will happen soon.

Q. What kind of projects is your team working on, in the IoT arena?
A. For IoT, we are focussing on retail and hospitality sectors. This is based on our analysis of the market. We feel start-ups in these sectors are likely to get funding faster than other sectors. So we are working with product owners on developing hardware capable of data collection, as well as smart apps that provide value. We are also working on smart display solutions to showcase retail products and enhance the shopping experience.

Another interesting product we are working on is the smart button. It is a wireless-connected button for retail and hospitality sectors. It links to an Android app or an iOS app and connects to the backend via Bluetooth, with a proprietary wireless mesh. It is mainly built for call-waiter applications and has a feedback to trigger consecutive actions. It will go in as part of the package in places like restaurants and there is an idea to integrate it with the Aadhaar system, using biometrics.

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Q. What do you think of the various standards that are currently ruling the IoT domain?
A. Today, there are too many standards that one just chooses to go with the most heard or most used one, not having the time to go through the details of everything available. Europe is the biggest player in this field and the challenge is more in getting a device certified. It would really be great to have an exclusive standard for India, one that pertains to the low-cost manufacturing angle here.

Q. How would you approach the security aspect?
A. We prefer to go with our own protocols for our wireless solutions. We would even recommend this for your close-knit network, till the gateway. This would not just strengthen your safety, but also give you the flexibility to design your system within your constraints and optimise to the maximum.

A marketing perspective…

Q. Who all have you partnered with for technologies and components?
A. We partner mainly with reliable vendors for our components. This is very important, because our products are dependent on timely supply of good components. One bad chip and the cost implications are enormous for our end-customer. So, reliable component vendors are very critical. We also partner with industrial designers and graphics artists for product development in the consumer space, where looks and form are as important as function.

Q. Do you target Indian customers or only global?
A. We mainly target Indian customers, although sometimes our design ends up being part of a global collaboration.

Q. Can you tell us about the kind of work you do for your clients?
A. We have worked on projects involving control of industrial equipment, mining vehicles and wireless control of heavy equipment for our international clients. Coming to the Indian market, we have developed products in the sectors of cement, steel, automotive, locomotive, energy, logistics, lighting, retail and hospitality. Some products have been for control of equipment, while others have been for collection of data and HMI units with rich graphics. Wireless has been used extensively in these products and solutions.

Q. What is your marketing strategy to reach global clients?
A. We focus primarily on Indian clients. We work with global clients only through our Indian partners. This is because the global projects we tend to work on are large-scale projects involving mechanical design, enterprise software, manufacturing of equipment etc, apart from electronics. So, we work in collaboration with others.

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Q. Do you follow the same strategy for Indian clients too?
A. For clients, in general, we showcase our design capabilities using in-house products we have developed. This is something we do regularly. We keep developing products for sectors we are focusing on. This reduces design time when we are working for our clients, because our teams have already studied the sector and developed a product for that sector. This gives clients confidence in our abilities. We also work on early-stage-costing with clients, for both the end-product and the services. This ensures that our clients are confident of both our technological capabilities as well as our strength in working for a target product price, which is very important for their business. Our expertise in embedded design across a wide range of platforms helps us get projects.

A perspective on human resources

Q. How many circuit/system design and chip design engineers do you have?
A. We have six design engineers working with us. These are true ’embedded design engineers’ capable of delivering both hardware and software design. Typically, a product design team consists of two or, at the most, three engineers. We are not in the head count business. We find that product design works best using small teams of highly-competent engineers.

Q. Would you be recruiting design engineers in the next 12 months?
A. No, we have no plans to recruit at the moment.

Q. Do you have a training/internship programme?
A. No, we do not have an internship programme. However, we do answer queries from students, if they write to us. We are thinking about starting a training program, since we have received many requests from the student community as well as professionals, to do so. But this may take a couple of months to come into existence. We are designing a course focused on product design for the Indian market.

Q. Do you hire freshers? What are your selection criteria and are you specific about the colleges they come from?
A. Yes, we hire freshers from time to time. Our criterion is simple. We look at the work they have done in their college project. If the work is original and they have approached it from a design point-of-view, they are likely to get hired. We are not particular about the college, only the technical skills and the mindset of the candidate matter.

Q. What are the skills freshers need to develop early on?
A. It is more of a mindset issue. They should be encouraged to get out of the copy-paste mentality and work on original ideas and concepts. Today, with the Internet and all kinds of electronic kits available, they have everything required to learn. It is about taking the initiative and doing original work from the time they are in college. I feel if the industry talks to these guys early on and conveys to them that this kind of self-learning is seen as a quality, students will respond. There is no lack of intelligence or talent in India. It is about channelling that talent in the right way.


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