CEO interview: ByteSnap at 15

CEO interview: ByteSnap at 15

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By Nick Flaherty

Dunstan Power and Graeme Wintle of ByteSnap Design talk to Nick Flaherty as the company reaches its 15th anniversary.

The company was set up in 2008 as a design consultancy in Birmingham working on a wide range of embedded hardware and software technologies. In 2020 it launched a separate business developing smart chargers for electric vehicles. It currently has 40 staff and continues to grow, having worked on over 350 projects despite the challenges presented by the pandemic and supply chain crisis.

“We used to work for another electronics and software consultancy nearby that grew to 30 people and was sold to a Canadian company that ran it into the ground over five years so we had a model of how to operate,” said Dunstan Power, hardware director and co-founder of ByteSnap.

“We had learnt to be consultants, take on customer requirements do the work and deliver not just software, we wanted to go back to the grass roots of embedded hardware and software. So when we started we looked for our niche, which is embedded systems and focussing on both equally.”

“Lots of our customers use us for a particular aspect but having both makes a big difference,” said Graeme Wintle, co-founder and software director at ByteSnap. “For low power radio for instance you need to understand hardware and software.”

“At the time we had a model in our head and to start with we were trying to recreate that because it worked,” said Power. “We still have the same kind of things, so we still do a bonus scheme for example,” added Wintle.

“But what we found was that it became self-limiting. All of a sudden we got larger and the IoT took off,” said Power. This brought challenges, such as long term support of embedded software platforms such as Windows CE (WinCE) and older microcontrollers.

“We are still growing the business but we have been conservative about how to grow the business,” said Wintle. “We have worked for a lot of business that took a lot of people on and it didn’t work out and it went to a darker place. In consultancy you see a lot of ideas, some good, some not so good, some not so well executed. As we got bigger we want to grow in different areas, from microcontrollers to operating systems. We still have products on WinCE for example.”  

“It has become incredibly niche but that’s not a bad thing – the engineers who work on those kinds of things have a wider range of expertise. I still dip into Win CE as there aren’t too many other people with those skills. All the work is on time and materials basis and it’s not work we have already done. For example a large US medical is one of our customers and we are supporting WinCE adding security patches.”

This led the two to look at whether they could develop a product. “All consultancies want to have a product – they see successful companies with products that scale,” said Power.

That led to SnapUI, an application development toolkit for embedded systems. “SnapUI was originally built on WinCE and then we moved it onto Linux. It’s not a shrink wrapped product – many times we talked about whether we could turn it into something like Crank or Qt.” he said.

“So it’s had a natural evolution of features as people ask for them, that feeds back into other projects,” added Wintle.

“It was a step up, a reason to use us as a consultancy. We have sold it as a license to customers with support but we never try to sell as a shrink wrapped product.”

The technology is used in railway departure boards, medical, small handheld equipment, industrial presses, gas analysers, laser alignment systems, even on lighting systems for superyachts. It is now being used for the electric vehicle charger spin off company, Versinetic.

It runs on Windows, Mac and embedded Linux using the OpenGL drivers.

“We have been asked to support products without 3D accelerators but its only recently we have developed that, it’s a sister version running on devices such as the NXP i.mx6 and i.mx93,” said Wintle.  

“We have specific engineers who do SnapUI who are apps guys but if they are spare and a new board comes in we can port it over. For example with the i.mx7ulp microcontroller we had beta versions of the silicon and we got that running, then ST did the stm32p1 and we did performance testing on that,” he said.

Spinning out Versinetic

This desire for a product offering led to the development of Versinetic, where Power is managing director.

“We started out doing smart chargers for London Olympics 2012, then we updated those chargers at service stations, 120 in London and another 300 for locations in UK,” said Power. “We then added support for the OPCP1.5 standard so we had built up a lot of knowledge on charging. We were approached by two separate companies asking for ways to make dumb chargers smart, so that was the genesis,” said Power.

“Joining the VIGIL Consortium gave us a lot of focus on the smart charger board,” said Power. “We knew we could sell a modular AC system and that has its own trajectory now as a standalone business with customers in 9 different countries,” he said.

“It works to our skills as a company,” said Wintle “We are selling to OEMs as business-to-business (B2B) and using our embedded design expertise with compliance testing. The case design we leave to the customer so they get a custom charger and ultimately we have s scalable product.”

“We are the right sort of size for this,” he said “We’ve done 350 to 400 projects over the 15 years in so many different areas, some using new technologies some using older technologies, so we have a good grasp of what works and that’s all taken into account. We supply PCBs and software and we can move quickly with new regulations, security, secure boot, encryption, safety, we can do it quickly,” he said.

It’s a mix of hardware and software that is key, says Power. “We have not hit hardware constraints on the chargers – we sit between the microcontroller and full PC versions with embedded Linux running on an ARM A-class processor.”

Pandemic challenges

Even with launching Versinetic during the pandemic, the two have seen significant challenges in the market. The pandemic saw lead times for certain microcontrollers as long as two years, so there was huge demand to redesign boards, they say.

“The main thing over the last few years is that innovation has really slowed down as people redesign for supply chain. There are still serious issues in the supply chain but it’s not as bad as a year ago,” said Power.

“For example we had to fundamentally change our charger boards to design out a microcontroller that we couldn’t get hold of, so we designed in another part,” he said.

“We had suppliers seeing customers cancelling orders as they couldn’t get hold of parts, so there was a lot of demand for board redesigns. We have had plenty of work out of it for the redesigns but our engineers would much rather be designing new things,” he added.

“The whole fabless model is difficult when the fabs are overrun,” said Power. “One supplier would only give a lead time and pricing with an order for 10,000 parts and that was a non cancellable, non refundable order. Another suppler where we are a design partner did the same thing so we had to design out the parts.

That was another advantage of having in-house hardware engineers. “With Versinetic we were able to redesign the boards quickly and we weren’t at the mercy of the suppliers,” said Power.

EV charging market 

“It’s the right time for Versinetic,” said Power. “Its about to explode and it’s stratospheric where there it could go. Selling the parts of the product means we have a small number of customers who can sell a lot of products, it covers everything,” he said.

“Versinetic is an international business. We will saturate the UK market in perhaps 24 months and there will be a shakeout in the number of people selling charges. But because the market is massively expanding, we might be doing niche chargers and that could be 10,000 in each niche. Versinetic is built on the consultancy model so we can do custom designs and license the design to customers and that’s an important tier,” says Power. “For example we have a customer in Egypt building chargers into an advertising hoarding.”

Engineering recruitment

“We are still looking to recruit but it’s a nightmare – that’s become hard. I don’t know where the UK engineers are. The people that apply are not from the UK. There aren’t enough doing the courses and enough staying in the industry,” said Power.

“There’s a big gap from the electronic engineering course on hardware to computer science with a focus on AWS and cloud software, but its not embedded software” said Wintle. “We are picking up momentum, more customers, every year we take on more staff, a mix of graduates and more experienced engineers. Some of the guys we took on from Birmingham as graduates have been with us 10 to 12 years, and this year we have four grads coming on board.”


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