Manufacturing Series: SurfaceInk, the brains behind the gadget

Eric Bauswell, founder of SurfaceInk

Perched in a display case inside the downtown San José office of SurfaceInk is a hit parade of consumer electronics: Palm devices, Apple iPhones, Amazon Kindles, and  enough routers, printers – even a few toys – to stock a Fry’s megastore.

They’ve all been shepherded from concept to reality by SurfaceInk, a nearly 20-year-old product development consultancy that has quietly left its stamp on Silicon Valley, through products on or near you right now, and plenty you’ve never heard of.

“There’s a million different decisions that go into a good product,” says Eric Bauswell, the company’s 45-year-old founder, on a recent tour of his offices – a brightly colored space with exposed brick walls, a refrigerator-sized 3D printer and a spacious prototyping room. The firm works with startups and Fortune 100 behemoths alike on design, R&D, proof-of-concept, and full-cycle product development – right up to mass production.

One recent example SurfaceInk worked on: The LuDela “smart” candle, whose website describes “technology-enabled candlelight fixtures that allow users to instantly ignite, extinguish and control multiple real-flame candles with the touch of a button on our free smartphone app.”

“It’s magical,” Bauswell said. “You’re like a magician pushing a button and fire happens. You watch someone do it, and you get hat eye popping, what-just-happened look.”

The company last year doubled its office footprint in San José to about 12,000 square feet, and is up to about two dozen employees. (It acquired GPiO, a component-selection company, in 2016). It’s part of a growing ecosystem of hardware-related companies in Downtown San José, including consumer electronics company Mota Inc., robot-maker Savioke , design firm Whipsaw Inc., and Spanner Product Design.

Bauswell says he loves being in Downtown, with its easy access to restaurants, entertainment, customers – and potential employees. “Hardware is in the South Bay for the most part,” he says. We spoke with Bauswell recently about the company’s early days,

How’d you fund yourselves and build your business, in the early days?

We didn’t pay ourselves, we used credit cards and we just leveraged it. We started with mechanical engineering and industrial design, and we were really focused on the possible. We didn’t shut people down. We said – we’ll look at it.

At the time, everyone was trying to do organic surfaces (or products with realistic curves and shapes). It was pretty unique, and we were pretty magical with CAD for surfacing.  There was high demand for that niche.

Monohm’s Runcible

Tell me about this cool little circular phone gadget, the Monohm Runcible, which can come with a wooden back. What did they have when you met them? 

They had an industrial design form, and shaded images that were similar to this. They had an idea what they wanted. We went through 30 different kinds of wood. No one does mass production like this with wood. We had to get it machined and tested.

What else is worth noticing?

On the flipside, we have a round display which is sort of unusual . But what’s really unique – if you look at round displays, nearly all of them have a flat tire (a black “dead zone” at the bottom of the screen). We did a study on displays, and because we work with Fortune 100 companies, we have access to a lot of suppliers. The cost to tool a custom display can be very expensive. We had two different sources, and (were able to vet) the cost structure, manufacturability and aesthetic.

Not everything you do is tech. For instance, you worked on some toy trucks for Green Toys.

We also did a jump rope for Green Toys. At first I said, How hard is that? Actually, there are a lot of things to think about. The rope selection is important. You have wear characteristics. For the handles, it was a material selection issue where we ended up doing recycled milk bottles out of Los Angeles.

Are we in a hardware renaissance?

I’d call it a hardware Wild West. Moore’s Law’s enabled a lot of things. We’ve pushed down the ability to make things smart.

Take the Roost Smart Battery. This is a nine-volt battery that I can put in my dumb smoke detector and it will detect the voltage drop, which tells my phone, there’s something going on. Now I have a competitor to a Nest smoke detector.

What makes a hardware product great?

We ask: Is it having an impact? Is it solving a problem? If it isn’t, it’s probably destined for landfill. I’m looking for a piece of magic. And I want the user to be completely in awe or unaware.

For example?

I installed Roost in my smoke alarm, but it’s doing its job. I know if there’s a fire if I’m at home or not. It’s amazing and a little magical.  And the LuDela Smart Candle is magical in that you have control of fire

What technology emerging today is exciting to you?

Voice is the most interesting. We’re working with Voicebox, out of Seattle, which has amazing natural language software. It’s got just crazy capabilities. That kind of tech will come into play, and as we get into the ability to hear things from across the room, ID who the user is – those kind of things amaze me. It’s magic.

Take me out a good 10 years or so. What’s your prediction of where hardware and hardware design are going?

It’s a continuation of what’s happening. Everything was steel and plastic when I started. Aluminum was new in the consumer space. Different polymers were coming in. The material trend will continue to drive things. Moore’s Law will continue to shrink products down and decrease the price of putting in intelligence. You’ll have smart paint, smart whatever.

Hold on – smart paint?

If it scratches and self-heals, that’s smart paint. It could be a speaker. Or a display. Your whole wall could be a display. It could be an e-ink wall effectively. You’re going to see those kind of transformations. How quickly? That’s the trick.

What’s your advice for someone who wants to get into hardware design?

Identify your passion and pursue it passionately. That’s the bottom line. If you’re going to get good at something you have to do a certain number of hours to become a journeyman or a master. You’re thinking about it when you’re in the shower – all the time. I got really good at CAD way faster than my peers out of school.  And if you’re doing what you love, it’s not work.