Manufacturing update

Manufacturing update

This has been a crazy year to be a small manufacturer with a global supply chain, but we managed to be fully stocked for Black Friday.  Here's where we stand going into the final weeks of 2021:

  • Manufacturing costs and our prices
  • Our manufacturing process
  • Why we have everything in stock
  • Tensor stereo upgrade kits

Manufacturing costs and our prices

Component and shipping costs have increased dramatically this year.  There is talk about inflation being temporary, but that means that prices may stop increasing -  the price increases so far are baked in.  Component lead times are also unpredictable; for example, our preferred supplier might say an op amp we need is backordered until 2023.  Often, those long lead times mean that the distributor has no idea when a part will be available and it actually comes earlier than expected.  When the pandemic started, we switch from just-in-time inventory management to stockpiling parts.  Most other manufacturers did as well, which has made the shortages worse.  We might have a years worth of DSP chips and be short on op amps, while someone else hoarded the op amps but can't find enough DSP chips. Carrying inventory adds expense on top of the component price increases.

At the same time, we are now paying more for sea shipping than we previously did for air freight, and it is taking up to three months in transit for shipments that used to take one month.  There are signs that backlogs at U.S. ports are easing, and it looks like shipping times will improve in 2022. 

We will hold our prices steady for as long as possible, but it is something we have to continue to evaluate.  We are small and efficient, but always looking for ways to be more efficient.  Our products are not cheap, but we think they are a good value and something you can use for many years in different ways as your music evolves.

Our manufacturing process

We posted earlier about some of the logistical challenges getting components this year.  Our products are assembled in Michigan from global components:

  • Electronic components come from all over the world 
  • Potentiometers and switches come from Taiwan
  • Enclosures are cast, drilled, and powder coated in Taiwan or Canada, depending on product
  • Most of our PCBs are fabricated in USA and assembled in Michigan
  • Shipping boxes are made in Detroit
  • We print enclosures in house
  • We assemble, test, and pack every pedal in house

Our two-footswitch pedals use a custom enclosure.  Since we own the tooling, we are not competing with anyone else over a limited supply.  We moved into a larger building at the beginning of 2020, so we have more space for inventory to cover increased manufacturing and shipping times.

Most of our PCBs are assembled here in Michigan, using pick and place machines and wave soldering, followed by both automated and manual inspection.  Wave soldering through hole components is more efficient and reliable than hand soldering.  We store inventory at our PCB assembly house, so parts are in climate- and static-controlled storage and ready to use.  The PCBs are fabricated in the U.S.

We print enclosures here using our UV LED printer.  Then we assemble the circuit boards into the enclosure, install the hardware and knobs.  We use an audio analyzer combined with custom software to test gain, SNR, THD+N, and frequency response, then check every knob and switch before cleaning and packing up each pedal.

Why we have everything in stock

We have mostly been able to keep things in stock this year, by:

  • Stockpiling inventory and scheduling part orders
  • Checking trusted distributors frequently for in-stock parts
  • Redesigning and prototyping with alternate parts
  • Working closely with our local PCB assembly house

We spent over 400 extra hours this year sourcing components, redesigning for alternate components, and building prototypes.  That usually happened in parallel and in most cases we found our standard component as we were prototyping, but it's always good to have a backup plan.  An example is if there is a long lead time on an op amp we use, but it is readily available in a different package size.  We can redesign the circuit board, hand build a prototype, and have the change ready to go into production quickly.

We did this several times in 2021, but eventually found the original parts we needed.  We order many parts direct from the manufacturer, but a distributor might have also ordered and received a shipment while we are waiting for ours.  In those cases, we can keep our original order for future builds and buy from the distributor (at a higher price) to keep our production schedules.  "Checking frequently" means randomly checking 2-3 times per day (I found some chips we need for the Bitmap and Raster while brushing my teeth).

On occasion, there is a substantial delay in receiving one of our standard components, but there is a slightly different component of the same or better specifications readily available at a higher cost (e.g., maximum 100V when we need 50V).  In those cases, we will install the component on a few circuit boards to validate it, place an order, then let our PCB assembly house know it is an approved alternate (in 2021 reality, we usually ordered the parts first to make sure we got them).

At times, we also adjusted production schedules based on what parts we had on hand, or if we could get parts to build one product while waiting on parts for another product.

Tensor stereo upgrade kits

Stereo upgrade kits for early Tensors (S/N 108-066999 and earlier) are waiting on backordered components.  They need to be assembled at a different factory than our main production boards (due to quantity), which means ordering all of the parts separately in smaller quantities.  We will post on social media and our email list when the kits are available.  The upgrade will be user installable.

Of course, we will continue to support all Tensors with firmware updates.