Making light work of small volumes

wilsons175x36Flexible manufacturing services provided by Wilson Process Systems help Toby Churchill to produce keyboards designed specifically for people with disabilities

Operating a keyboard with just one finger can be a vital means of communication for someone with severe disabilities, but manufacturing such a product, in the low volumes required and at a reasonable price, can be a hurdle. Cambridge-based Toby Churchill overcame the challenge by working with contract electronics manufacturer, Wilson Process Systems (WPS).

The Lightwriter range of keyboards is typical of Toby Churchill’s communication products. It works to convert what is typed into speech and was originally invented more than 40 years ago, though it has developed since those early days.

Flexible production

Today, typically, Toby Churchill requires a number of products but, being a low turnover company, is not able to order the full year’s requirement and still enjoy the competitive cost needed unless taken in one batch. Its relationship with WPS provides the flexibility to do just that. WPS manufactures in volume batches and holds them on the shelf, ready for delivery within 24 hours, so Toby Churchill doesn’t need to hold any more goods than necessary.

An example of how this relationship works can be seen with Toby Churchill’s latest product, the Scanning Lightwriter. This has keys that illuminate as the operator, using a finger controller, scans the keyboard and selects the required letter. The product can also be operated by head, foot, or even mouth, using a sip-puff switch. As well as turning text to speech, the device can make phone calls and send text messages using predictive text. It also has various notebook, alarm clock and phone book features.

To operate the scanning function, this keyboard needed a fourth PCB, and so the company turned again to WPS for help. First, Toby Churchill’s own design team laid out the PCB using a CAD package. A prototype PCB was built to test that the design worked and data from the CAD package was sent to WPS, whose engineers came up with a lead time and quote.

WPS also checked for any obsolescence or other component availability issues and suggested alternatives that would make sourcing and long term cost down more possible.

Procurement and purchasing manager at Toby Churchill, Paul Simpson, said: “We have in the past had PCB manufacturers saying they can do it and then producing something that doesn’t work as expected. We have not had that with WPS.”

The next stage was for WPS to produce an initial production run of boards. These were checked by Toby Churchill’s engineers, who also developed a test procedure for future products. These boards were received by Toby Churchill just six weeks after placing the order.

Open discussion

At this point, the designers decided a component needed changing to tweak the boards’ functionality. As there were less than a 100 boards, this was relatively easy. Later, one of Toby Churchill’s engineers spent a day at WPS going through the test procedures and sorting out any manufacturing issues.

Paul Simpson explained: “From that open discussion, we made sure we had what we wanted. As a reliable and flexible subcontractor, WPS work with us. The front office team is hands on with an abundance of knowledge and awareness of everything that is going through their facility. They are well organised and make sure nothing is missed.”

The Scanning Lightwriter is now with customers for beta testing, the results of which will be integrated ready for final production.

Paul Simpson concluded: “Everything has run smoothly. WPS provides, by far, a better manufacturing and customer service than our previous manufacturers and that is why we continue to work closely with them.”