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Nate Ramanathan is the VP of operations at AEye, a developer of perception systems for autonomous vehicles. AEye has transitioned from initial engineering development into the final design for production and manufacturing of very large quantities. Because the boards will be particularly complex once assembled and must withstand extremes in temperature and humidity, AEye's designs must be robust and high yield.
As I spoke with Ramanathan, AEye is in the sweet spot where the PCB manufacturers like to come onboard with a startup—beyond prototyping, just finishing designs, and holding a forecast for product sales. As such, Ramanathan’s criteria and perspective on selecting vendors speak for the general trends in the industry. In other words, his thinking is similar to most every prospective new customer that a CM will encounter. I found Ramanathan’s perspective to be specific and creative.
Nolan Johnson: As we start this conversation, can you tell us about your role at AEye and what AEye does?
Nate Ramanathan: Sure. As the VP of operations at AEye, I cover manufacturing, pilot, supply chain sourcing, procurement, facilities, quality, regulatory, and everything else. AEye is a perception company—robotic perception in particular—focused on iDAR, or intelligent detection and ranging. Our system uses solid-state agile LiDAR fused and boresighted with a low-light HD camera and embedded. And all of it is software definable, allowing customizable data collected based on the customer’s needs. Our differentiator is our architecture.
Johnson: Before this interview, we were talking about where AEye is in your go-to-market plan. You’re a startup and also moving from prototype to preparing your components for volume manufacturing. What are the immediate types of challenges you’re facing as you transition to optimizing for production and selecting manufacturing sources?
Ramanathan: This industry is going through the early stages of an 'ah-ha' moment—the next big thing. Everybody wants to go there, but the proof is, 'Can you do the volumes?' Not just volumes, but at automotive quality. One or two pieces for prototyping is great because you can tinker with it and fine tune it. But when you go to the 100,000, 200,000 units, or a million units and you have a small flaw, it just blows up the market. So, how do we get this technology over to that level, like everyday use, where everybody gets in and out of an autonomous vehicle and feels confident.
When I came on board, the very first question when I talked to AEye was, 'Are you going to manufacture in-house?' They said, 'No, we don’t have that core competency.' 'Thank you. I'm on board.' That's all it took me because I've dealt with a lot of manufacturers. I have been on both sides of the aisle. I was with a large medical company—$80 billion—being a customer to most CMs. Then, I switched places and came over to CM for four years, and I saw on both sides there is a communication gap. When I came on board with AEye, I said the first thing is design for manufacturability (DFM), design for cost (DFC), design for supply chain efficiency, and design for quality (DFQ). Everything starts at the design. If you are going to make it in the millions, think and act like that.
For CMs, play the game early. If you do not know the technology and are not keeping up to speed with what is needed in your manufacturing, you won’t have the setup to attract companies like us. When I talk to any CM right now, I tell them the same message: “I’ll give you the list. There is no hide and seek. I want the supply chain to become large enough that we can achieve cost efficiency.” If it’s micro and there are only very few players, we don’t get the cost efficiency. The message is, “If you want to play this game, invest some time in the technology and follow us.”
Johnson: It sounds a little bit like, “Build it, and they will come.”
Ramanathan: It’s not build anything, and they will come, but build what is needed. They will come. I’ve already opened the door to some of the CMs and told them, “If you are interested in earning the business, here is what you need to have for capabilities, and then we’ll talk.” I’m not going to wait for you to build a factory after I am ready with a product; it will be too late. Walk with me from the beginning. This is the technology that is growing by the day. I want somebody to be ready when I’m showing these things as concepts. I show the timeline and the brick wall. It’s just 11 months out, that’s it, and they look at me like, “Oh my gosh.” It is aggressive, and we know it. If you want to play this game, you have to be ready. That means you cannot have that, “We will wait for them to give me an RFI, RFP, or RFQ, and then I will shop for equipment.” No, these are technologies you have to have in-house. Some understand better than others, and some are going to learn when they miss the boat.
Every time I meet with a CM or a potential supplier, I say, “These are the few things you need to look at. I’m not going to spell it out; it’s not rocket science.” What is this LiDAR technology? There is laser, and there are optics, cameras, and boards. Like most technology products, the size is going to get smaller and smaller. In addition, what kind of certifications do you need to have? That’s most of the questions. They have to sit down and have a task team and ask these questions. Some CMs have started thinking, “We have to get in the game!”
To read the full article, which appeared in the February 2019 issue of SMT007 Magazine, click here.