October 2006

Production Notes31 Oct 2006 04:26 pm

Monday was not the best day to be at the Cafe Electric shop.

Unless, that is, you happen enjoy loud noises and great balls of plasma. It’s not a lot of fun when it’s a brand new Z2K turning into a charred mess. I guess it was bound to happen someday and yesterday turned out to be the day of the first catastrophic failure of a Zilla power section. There’s not much left in the black mass that used to be a Z2K. Looking at it reminds me of people who whine that todays controllers are not user serviceable. When you look at what less than one second of plasma can do to a controller (yes, the Hairball did it’s job and shut it down less than 1/2 second after detecting the failure) you see that trying to salvage half of it would be more work than building new.

It all started when a controller was throwing error codes, but only while in extra high voltage testing (somewhere over 370V) and only when currents were over 1800 amps. This is just the type of problem that is rather annoying to diagnose since reproducing it requires power levels that boil large amounts of water rather quickly and make the person testing (that’s me) very nervous. It was after having fixed what I thought was a potential cause of the problem, and hooking it up to a full pack with 400+ volts on it for a retest that the unit decided to self destruct. Yes, it was loud.
There is some good news out of all of this. The postmortem analysis did show a definitive cause of the problem and it was a slip up of mine that I made during the critical final assembly process. Live and learn. Unfortunately this will cause at least a week of delay in the schedule as I disassemble and verify the integrity of the remaining 13 Z2K’s in this batch. Not something I’m much looking forward to.
On other news, the Hairballs for these units are built and awaiting test.
That’s it for today.

Production Notes20 Oct 2006 11:12 am

Hello All,
It’s Friday the 20th and I figure it’s time for a production update:
Good news: The new assistant here at Cafe Electric is working out very well. It sure helps to have someone capable and detail oriented doing nothing but production for eight hours a day. It’s much better than one burnt out guy trying to run the company and do production at the same time. As I write this she’s doing a final cleaning and inspection on Z2K power boards and after writing this I’ll head out back and start the final assembly process for the current batch of fourteen Z2K controllers. It’s interesting to think that last year we shipped ten Z2Ks and this year we will ship twenty five. We probably would have had even more orders if the delivery times were reasonable. No wonder it’s been hard to keep up. This batch will fill all but a couple of the Z2K’s on order. Sorry Steve Clunn, your last one and one Tango controller will have to wait. So we are catching up.

Once those Z2K power sections are tested, we’ll assemble and test Hairballs for them and ship. I expect those to ship no later than mid November. As much as I like to give optimistic news, there are still forty Z1K’s on back order. The oldest of those is from 3.8.06. I truly apologize for the delay, that was right about when the machinist problems started to surface. We’ll be building those in the sequence that they were ordered as soon as the Z2K’s ship. Fifteen power board sets are built for those (the hard part) so those first ones will go quickly. I expect that we should be able to fill at least half of the forty Z1K backorders before the end of the year, hopefully more. My dream is to have them all filled this year, but I’m not promising anything since we all know how issues crop up to delay matters. Beyond that it’s a bit hard to think. It’s been so long since I was caught up that I’m not used to it. I suppose we’ll order up another fifty sets of Z1K machined parts (thankfully after many problems I’ve found a great machinist in the next town over) and build more Z1K’s.

On other news, I’ve reviewed costing on the LV controller models and I think we can keep our price where it is so long as we still maintain a high proportion of HV and EHV orders. So for now I’ll list them on the web as available again.

Since my last blog entry a few people have graciously offered services from assembly houses located large distances from here. I guess they didn’t actually read my last blog entry, so let me clarify a bit here: Once I manage to get all the parts properly supplied, there is really not much labor in building a Zilla. A few hours of it (per controller) is the kind of thing that a assembly house could do without extensive training and elaborate setup. For those items I would welcome good a assembly house to do the work. But even if the assembly was done at no cost to me it would not justify me going out of state for it. By the time I travel to evaluate them, slog through the specification and quote process, deal with the fact that it seems they can’t read the simple instructions that I give, I find I might as well have just soldered up the boards myself. So, if you know of a reasonably priced assembly house that is efficient at batches of 50 to 100 pieces *In Oregon* then I’d sure love to hear about them.

As for the other half of the assembly process, I should address that a bit since what is involved is not common knowledge. The Zilla power sections have two inherent benefits due to their unique design. First they are smaller for a given power, and second they are lower cost for a given power than ones made using industry standard techniques. To obtain these benefits I had to use assembly techniques that are not standard in the industry. In addition to the special design, I have made equipment for preparing the power part surfaces and for testing parts so they can be sorted into batches to allow these benefits. But misplace one part while matching them and Bang! you’ve blown a controller. Also, the final assembly process is very critical and must be done just so. One bit of dirt in the wrong place and you have a unreliable controller. Unfortunately, there are many ways to compromise the assembly and the result of each one is a blown controller. So there are a number of operations involved in building and assembling the power section that I am very careful about. The Zilla still holds a unheard of reliability record for this industry and I intend to keep it that way. In addition to the design, I attribute the high reliability to my careful control of the assembly process. To farm out that part of the assembly would take extensive training in order to insure reliability. I’m not against farming it out, it’s just that it’s not a simple thing to do and it will require a long term commitment from a very unusual partner to make it worthwhile.

That’s all for now.

Production Notes06 Oct 2006 08:17 pm


It’s my first blog post here. My plan is to outline the current production situation at Cafe Electric and provide updates as they happen.

At this point I am building controllers ordered in February of 2006. Quite a backlog, I know. The good news is that all the major parts needed to fill the backlog are finally here in the shop; copper, silicon, custom made shunts, hard to get op-amps are all in stock ready for assembly and test. Today I am working on a large pile of Z2K controllers. Once those are built, I’ll be building Hairballs to match. With any luck (don’t hold me to it, it seems things often come up) they will be done by the end of this month (October). This will cover all Z2Ks ordered up to early September. After that, I’ll start on the backlog of Z1K orders.

My original plan included contracting out the simpler PC board stuffing to a local shop. Unfortunately the local assembly house wants a surprisingly large amount of money to build them. As a result, I’m stuffing the boards myself. If you know of a excellent assembly house in Oregon, I’d love to hear about it, but please, they need to be a “known good” place and in Oregon. It’s not worth my time for me to go into the extended evaluation routine involved with checking a new place out, and with my annual quantities of about one hundred units it just doesn’t make sense to send them overseas. In the end I’d rather sit down and solder than check out another questionable assembly house.

This week I started training a new assistant. So far everything looks good and I’m optimistic this will speed up production. Hopefully I’ll post more on this later.

Some people have come up with some well meaning suggestions such as Cafe Electric providing Zilla kits or having people come help solder for a weekend. Although I appreciate the concern, the truth is that I have considered these and many more options. I just laugh at the kit suggestions. I could probably offer kits at about twice the price of the controller fully built, and I would have to hire a couple more people to provide support to those valiantly trying to make it run while frustrated by all the smoke coming out. People don’t seem to get the fact that it takes months for me to teach someone to build these controllers, even one on one. It’s not particularly easy, it’s not simple like building a VCR or a laptop computer.

So, it’s the end of my first post this Friday. I’ll be doing some engineering over the weekend and then it’s back to production on Monday.

Oh, and this comment thing,,,, I have to approve them so don’t be offended if they never show up. I’m trying to build controllers here.

Be well, and thanks for your patience.