A race against the competition

Autonomous functionality is set to disrupt industries from automotive to agriculture and robotics. There’s just one problem: GPS technology needs to catch up.

“To achieve new levels of autonomy, we need to solve two hard problems—cost and precision,” said Diana Schlosser, vice president of marketing at San Francisco-based tech firm Swift Navigation.

Getting you within 10 to 15 feet of a destination is suitable for getting a driver to a restaurant, but it’s not nearly precise enough to guide today’s increasingly complex autonomous vehicles and robots. Plus, most high-accuracy solutions can run up to $10,000 a unit, far too pricy to be built into a fleet of self-driving cars.

So, the team at Swift Navigation had an idea: create real time kinematics (RTK) technology in-house to deliver a low cost, yet highly precise navigation solution. Now all they had to do was build it. That’s where Avnet came in.

drone flying above construction site

From prototype to product

Jas Condley, Swift’s head of hardware, realized early on in the process that outside design help would speed Swift’s time to market.

“After we defined product goals and requirements for our new Piksi® Multi GNSS Module, we reached out to Avnet’s procurement services team for support,” Jas said.

Avnet’s involvement extended far beyond recommending products off the line card, though. Risk analysis showed that some components in the initial design of Swift’s multi-band, multi-constellation GNSS receiver board might be difficult to come by or not sustainable long term, according to Cindy Vitales, Avnet senior account manager.

“When Swift came to us, they needed help sourcing lower-cost components, such as commodity parts used in typical cell phones, to get their technology to a price point that was 10 times less than the competition,” said Cindy.

So, she supplied Swift engineers with dozens of samples for proof of concepts that would meet their bill of material (BOM) cost targets and extend the product’s life. In tandem, the Avnet team started proactively buying parts even before Swift’s supply chain program fully launched, letting them focus on innovating their products rather than chasing down orders.

“We did an exhaustive search for the best performing components, but as a small company we weren’t often able to get the volume pricing or expedited delivery Avnet was able to achieve,” Jas said. “Avnet was a critical partner to Swift in getting that done.” 

The joint Avnet and Swift teams did face challenges, though. Finding new ways to keep the module size small, power consumption low and BOM costs optimized all took some work, according to Colin Lee, Avnet field application engineer.

“It’s easy to pick out all the reason why things won’t work because that’s how we engineers are trained: to divide up problems into parts,” Colin said. “But we were excited to help, and that excitement extended to Swift’s engineering committee.”

More than a supplier, a partner

That excitement was electric, according to Ben Hsu, Swift’s director of hardware operations. Ben has worked with Avnet on and off for two decades. But this time felt different.

“Avnet acts as a value added partner as opposed to a parts supplier,” Ben said, noting there’s not a week that goes by where he doesn’t see a member of the Avnet team. “To other startups, I’d say give Avnet a harder look and ask them to bring the other parts of the business they have into the relationship.” - Ben Hsu, Swift Navigation director of hardware operations.

And of others in the technology distribution space?

“They don’t necessarily have the Avnet initiative and mindset of helping small companies succeed,” Ben added.

Building for the future, together

The company’s GPS technology now serves thousands of customers worldwide.

Not only does Swift’s Piksi Multi GNSS Receiver now check off the boxes of low cost ($595) and high accuracy, but the lessons learned in building it gave way to a new next generation product.

In fact, a ruggedized version of Piksi Multi built in a cast aluminum case to withstand extreme conditions in long-term outdoor applications needed even more design help than its predecessor. By sourcing needed components and accessories Avnet helped Swift bring the durable product, aptly called the Duro™, to market.

And Ben thinks that support will be critical for years to come.

“It’s not just quoting and getting the best price today,” Ben said. “Avnet continues to help Swift define our roadmap in terms of what our cost could be as our technology matures and our volumes grow.”

From tech startups like Swift Navigation to global enterprises, Avnet’s services and solutions help customers get from idea to product and from product to market. Learn more about how we help you to reach further.

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