Last year the BBC unveiled the design of the BBC micro:bit, part of the BBC’s Make it Digital initiative, of which element14 is a major partner. The project is producing one million BBC micro:bits that will be gifted to each Year 7 (or equivalent) aged child in the UK, and we are seeing excitement build within schools and the media as the delivery date draws ever closer.

 

In this update I’d like to talk more about why we got involved in this amazing project, and explain our role in making this happen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why did element14 want to get involved?

At element14  we are hugely committed to supporting the development of the next generation of coders. We are in a period of great technological innovation and change, meaning that it is more and more important for people of all ages to understand how the connected world works, whether that be computers, programmable devices or the Internet of Things.

 

With coding becoming as important as reading and writing, we must help boys and girls see the opportunities that the study of STEM subjects opens up to them, helping them thrive in this entrepreneurial and innovation–led environment.

 

The BBC micro:bit is a fantastic example of how we can inspire young minds, and we are delighted to be a part of it. As we’ve previously helped to bring to market some of the world’s leading electronic products including Codebug and the Raspberry Pi, we were immediately keen to also be involved this project.

 

The role of element14

element14’s proven expertise in managing the design and manufacture of development kits for partners in our Strategic Alliance program meant we played an important role in this project.  This project serves as a great example of the activity required to bring a new board to market.

 

We became aware of the project back in February 2015 and put forward a proposal to support with the cost optimisation and manufacturing of the board. Our role in the project was to take the prototypes for the BBC micro:bit, which were based on the ARM mbed reference designs in the mbed Hardware Development Kit (HDK), and optimize them for mass manufacturing. At this stage there were a number of unknowns and element14 was invited to engineer out this uncertainty, acting as arbitrator between the needs of the working group and the practicalities of manufacture.

 

BBC micro:bit is unique – it’s not just the hardware but and end to end solution allowing children across the world to take their first steps in coding. We therefore worked closely with a range of partners who together could bring the BBC micro:bit project to life, with element 14 sitting at the heart of these partnerships. Hardware partners include ARM, Nordic Semiconductor and NXP, whilst the website, programming languages, soft content and cloud are being provided by a range of partners that include Micrsoft and Samsung.

 

Making the BBC micro:bit

Design

element14 has the skills and expertise to bring a board like the BBC micro:bit to market.  The initial design called for a complex and expensive routed design. However, because of the quality of element14’s V-score process, the cost of the board was able to be significantly reduced, without sacrificing the quality of the finish.

 

Visual appearance was also important on this board.  In most development kit designs the appearance is secondary to the functionality but, as this board is aimed at children, it needed to be both functional and friendly. element14 worked with the BBC, ARM, Microsoft and design company Technology Will Save Us to understand the aesthetic and usability considerations of the board, and to realise the manufacturing realities behind these design decisions. Each BBC micro:bit is labelled showing the location of various components such as the accelerometer and compass, and we have manufactured it in 4 different colours, which we believe is a first.

 

Cost Optimisation

Cost optimisation was key to all board designs. Suppliers will typically have an idea of cost and retail price per board before the project starts. In this case the BBC was aiming to reduce the cost of the board to a point where, through the contributions and donations of the projects’ partners, the board could be provided at zero cost to every 11 and 12 year old in the country. To assist in this, element14 was able to use its influence with various supplier partners to leverage economies of scale to the benefit of the project. This economy of scale is applied to all our development kit designs to ensure the boards are created to be commercially viable but, whilst it is possible in higher volume production runs, with smaller projects this can sometimes prove more difficult.

 

Manufacturing

The project has to be manufacturable at scale. We were able to work with our many manufacturing partners to find a suitable organisation to manufacture the board in the quantities that are required, and within the aggressive timelines of the project. As the design was being created in the UK, to avoid unnecessary delay, initial prototypes were manufactured in the UK. This allowed the partners to test early prototypes and work on the key software components as quickly as possible, in order to rapidly de-bug and move onto the next stages of the design. Once the prototype is approved the next step is to manufacture a first batch of 10 – 20,000 boards, which will be sent to early adopters to test.

 

You can see from this very short snapshot that there are many layers to designing and manufacturing a new board, and how element14 has supported managing the manufacture of a project in time and at cost.  Our role in this project as well as those with our strategic partners is to turn the initial idea into a manufacturable reality.

 

Final mass production is currently underway and we will shortly be making BBC micro:bits available for distribution to schools.

 

Can I buy one?

 

 

It was clear after the announcement of the project that there was huge interest in the BBC micro:bit, not only from the traditional tech and education communities, but from the general public. element14 and the BBC have been in discussions to make the BBC micro:bit commercially available, watch this space for more news.

 

With the high profile launch to schools on the horizon we’re excited about creating a legacy with the BBC that will allow the maximum number of children to experience the BBC micro:bit. Working with engineers and developers is something element14 has been doing for many years, but the BBC micro:bit project is truly that once in a lifetime opportunity for us as a company  to positively influence the next generation of coders around the world – we’re excited to be at the heart of it.  

 

 

Links

  • Don’t know what the micro:bit is?  - watch this BBC video for more information.
  • See what the kids are saying about the micro:bit – what the BBC trailer here