Timothée Pineau, VP at OverClocking-TV managed to get some quality time with Shimon, head of design and manufacturing at Streacom. In this in-depth interview the guys discuss all the challenges the Open Benchtable presented including an overview of the development process, the materials used and details about manufacturing process and more. Click the video, or alternatively read the full interview transcript below:
Tim: Ok, so welcome Shimon. Welcome to this little interview, we are going to talk today about the Open Benchtable and your role in this project as a designer working for Streacom. So quickly first introduce yourself, tell us who you are, what you’re doing, where you live etc.
Shimon: Ok, so first of all hi Tim. Thanks for having me. My name is Shimon. I work for Streacom as head of design and manufacturing, so I’m based here in China and yeah, my responsibility is basically to lead the company in terms of product direction and supervise the manufacturing and make sure the products come out the way we want them to be.
Tim: So about Streacom itself, since how long does the company exist? What does the company do in terms of products? What is it known for in the market? Can you tell us a little bit more about that business?
Shimon: Sure. So Streacom was originally set up in 2010. The main products that people know us for, for the ones that don’t know us, we are a case company. But we’re slightly different in the sense of where we focus. So I think the majority of case manufacturers, they do gaming and standard PC cases and nothing particularly special, but what we do is we focus on fanless, on compact. We’re very design orientated. We’re very focused on quality, so the materials we work with and the processes that we use, they’re very premium oriented. And it’s a kind of more lifestyle product than a typical PC enclosure. So that’s really where we differentiate ourselves from the rest of the market which tends to be maybe more novelty driven. Design trends rather than something which is maybe more minimalistic and kind of timeless designs. That’s what we do.
Tim: So you are trying to build PC cases that have a very simple design that people can have at home. That would stay at home and be used for years and years to come, right?
Shimon: Exactly, yes. Also we do have a kind of focus on small form factor and fanless. We’re trying to make things discrete, rather than in your face or the typical gaming style, LED lighting and so forth. It’s a little bit more classy maybe.
Tim: Ok, so at Computex I remember this year you launched a case for Mini-ITX. I see you were talking about small cases. So that case is like a cube right? So that’s exactly the type of product that you guys are working on.
Shimon: Exactly. It’s still a PC case but we think it’s different and it’s different not just for the sake of being different, but to try and achieve something. So it is fanless. It does look like a piece of art, it doesn’t have that generic PC feel about it. And that’s what we’re all about.
Tim: Ok, brilliant. Since we’re talking about Computex, that’s actually where the whole Open Benchtable project sort of started. That was back in 2015, the year when Trouffman, Isai and myself came to visit you guys at your Computex booth in the 101 back then. What was your first thought when you heard about the project because initially we were not there to talk about that. It just ended up being, like ok, about the discussion.
Shimon: Yeah, I think actually what happened was that you saw what we do and I’m assuming you thought actually, this is quite nice. Wouldn’t it be good if we could do a benchtable which had that similar kind of quality and style about it. I think when you first mentioned the idea of a benchtable for portability, well to be honest I’m not into the whole overclocking scene, so initially I didn’t realise you needed it to be portable, so ok.
My next reaction was there must be something out there, and I think it was only after the meeting when I started looking for what kind of products were available for overclocking, I think it’s only at that point that I realised that no one had really given any attention to this. Regardless of the portability, even with standard tables, all of them, or the majority of them, seemed to be just adapted ATX cases without frames around them.
So I think that’s what really interested me. It was the fact that this hadn’t really been tackled before. Certainly not using our approach. The Streacom way of trying to do something a little bit different and bring some element of high quality to it. So I think yeah, that’s what interested me in starting this project with you.
Tim: We were mentioning the design approach that Streacom has and that it’s very particular to your products. What was the design process or the logic that went behind the design of this table? How did you approach the problem at first and how did you solve the different challenges?
Shimon: Well I think that actually the portability and being lightweight, I think that works very well with the way we approach our design in general because of the simplicity element. So once you simplify any product, you have less components, you have in principle less weight so I think that’s one of the elements that made it easy for us to come up with a solution. And of course the fact that we don’t add unnecessary complexity to it. It can be simple, it can be comprising of less parts so that’s what’s leads to the weight and portability, of course using aluminium. It’s an extremely lightweight metal. Of course if it’s done right and you know how to engineer well with it, then it’s also strong enough to support everything you need for a benchtable.
Tim: So when you start working on a project, so first you mentioned you research the market to see what is out there. What was the next step basically, following that?
Shimon: Ok, so I think at that point our initial thought was ok, I think you need to define what it needs to do in terms of spec, you know what type of motherboards it needs to support, what PSU size it needs to support. And then beyond that I think it was really just down to, ok here here’s a blank piece of paper, this is what it needs to do. Anything can be put down.
Of course the initial idea was a flat table, it was obvious that it was going to be something like that. But with the design process, what we normally need to have is the brief, and I think it’s a moment where you kind of have the inspiration. So it’s not really sure when that happens but hopefully it happens sooner rather than later. I think at that point you have an idea which makes that product, differentiate it, gives it its character. So for me that was the point where with the feet and the handle and I think that has always been the defining characteristic of the Open Benchtable. Even if you compare the final product to the early prototype, that element hasn’t really changed and I think that was the defining moment of the product. The feet layout, the shape of the feet, the way they fit into the table and the carry handle.
Tim: So the very early prototypes were just below 3 kilos. 2.5 kilos. And then the final one, the commercial benchtable that exists on the market right now, this one is 1.82 kilos, so what went after the prototyping into finalizing the final benchtable. How come there was also so much weight loss?
Shimon: I think the key element for that was the fact that we committed to producing a product as opposed the a prototype which we were only going to do very low volume and get feedback. So when we really committed to producing the product the major change was the fact that we from standard off the shelf screws, to custom screws. And by doing that, what it allowed us to achieve was to get rid of all the additional parts, so for example the acrylic. We had this top and bottom acrylic which we used to create the compartments to store the screws. But because we had a completely custom screw set now, we were able to think, how can we fix these custom screws without the need of extra parts. They’re superfluous those parts.
So that’s of course when we thought about fitting them to the table, directly to the feet. So that saved a lot of weight, just from those two acrylic parts. Plus the screws that we had before, again because they were not optimized, they were heavier than the screw set we have now. So it’s actually the acrylic and the screws, plus we do have a little bit more CNC going on on this table so we have reduced the amount of aluminium a bit, but generally it was the change in design that saved the weight.
Tim: So, like you mentioned the screws are quite special on that table. What are the tools that are needed for someone that buys a table and wants to assemble it? Do they need a screwdriver or something like that?
Shimon: No actually. All the screws are thumbscrews, so unless you want to apply a bit of extra pressure, to lock things in more securely, you really don’t need any tools to assemble it.
Tim: Ok, that’s pretty cool. So those screws, you can also use a screwdriver as well as being thumbscrews.
Shimon: Yes, you can, if you choose to.
Tim: Ok, so one of the next things about that table is that initially we had an overclocking approach into why we were building this table. But of course as we went we were also talking about more of regular people, PC enthusiasts, people who like to see their components on the table, or people in the field who would use the table as a regular testing station, like that. But for overclockers, one of the main concerns was that the table would be solid enough to support a full, extreme overclocked system. For example with one LN2 pot on the CPU, four graphics cards with their pots, extra pots on the memory as well. So that would be put a very important load on the table. The heavy duty aspect was quite important. What change, what made… how did you choose the materials, the type of aluminium for that kind of use?
Shimon: Actually, that wasn’t such a big concern for me, the weight element. I knew were going to be working with a fairly thick piece of aluminium to start with. For example, even at 4mm aluminium is not going to bend unless you apply a fair amount of pressure, and I knew we were going to be working something more than that. So I wasn’t so concerned about the amount of weight it had to support.
The things that worried me were more the elements that we hadn’t considered. So always as a designer when you are producing any product, the problems that you know about are the ones you don’t need to worry about. It’s the ones that you don’t know about that worry me. So yeah, that wasn’t a concern for me because I knew that we could test for it and I knew we were going to be working at least 8mm, so I was fairly confident that it would support anything that was put on top of it.
Tim: What were for example, the things you didn’t know about that you realised when you working on the project? Something that we didn’t think about for example.
Shimon: The really big one which was really strange that we didn’t think about earlier was the brackets for mounting all-in-ones [laughs].
Tim: That’s true, yeah…
Shimon: That was a really big schoolboy error to have omitted that on the prototype. But at least it gave something for people to look forward to on the final version, now that we solved that problem.
Tim: So speaking about those brackets, are they cut out of the table itself, or how do you get the material for it?
Shimon: One of the other important things that I’m not sure we mentioned at all or enough, was that we are going to put the plans online. So if someone has a CNC machine at home, I’m not sure how many people do, but let’s say people do have access to CNC machines, they can make their own table. And for those people who would be milling it out for themselves at home, yes those brackets are actually cut out from the holes which are also in the table. So the feet and the brackets, everything for the table, other than screws, everything comes from that single piece of aluminium. Actually for the production process that we’re using now and this is just to speed things up actually, and it’s more cost-efficient, we are making the brackets out of a separate piece of aluminium, but it’s still designed so that you could cut it out of that single piece.
Tim: Ok, so you basically take those production brackets, and they will fit straight into where it’s supposed to be cut out of the table anyway.
Shimon: Exactly, the size and shape, everything is as if it there were cut out from that point. In fact for the early samples that we made, that’s how it was done.
Tim: So for the manufacturing you say that you’re using CNC. What does the process look like? How does it work, to cut out a piece of aluminium and make a table out of it?
Shimon: Ok. So I think this is something else that maybe would be useful if we could add a video at some point. But to give a basic explanation, you have already a pre-cut slab of aluminium. Already 8mm thick. And what you do is you have a jig which locks it in place inside a CNC machine and this CNC basically has x and y cutting, as well as the z which is the up and down. So we have a different set of drill bits, what that does is it basically moves the aluminium and you have a high-speed drill and basically where ever the drill makes contact with the aluminium, that’s where it gets cut. So depending on the size of the drill bit and the position of the x, y and the z, you basically just cut out the aluminium.
Tim: So that kind of tooling is not that easy for everyone to get right?
Shimon: It’s not something that people typically have at home…
Tim: You don’t buy that at the supermarket…
Shimon: No you don’t. There are places that do have milling machines available and I have actually seen some manufacturers looking at producing, maybe not large machines but certainly small ones which are comparable to 3D printers. I think, maybe not in the next year, but certainly I think there will come a time where you do have home milling machines. In that way it’s something which could be eventually produced at home.
Tim: For the production process, how many tables can a CNC machine do per day? How long does it take to cut every piece out and have the final cut out?
Shimon: It’s difficult to give exact numbers because it’s done in stages. So you wouldn’t just have a beginning to end (process) with one machine, in one go. And again this is more to do with optimizing it for manufacturing. You would do a single process on maybe a hundred tables and then take it to the next CNC machine and do another set of processes. And don’t forget because the table right now, again a very big difference from the prototype – the prototype only had to be CNC’d on a single side, actually two sides, on the top and bottom side. The addition of the brackets, the way that the screws fit, so we have now CNCing on all six sides.
So you have to basically stop the machine, take out the semi-finished aluminium and then turn it to a different angle or position and then do the other edges. So it’s a fairly intensive process if you are doing just one piece. So from beginning to end you would have to start, stop, start, stop. So in that way we do a whole batch of one specific process and then put it through the machine again through another process. It’s difficult to quantify exactly how many you can do in one day. You don’t actually finish a single table in one day.
Tim: I see. So once it comes out of that machine the aluminium still looks very raw, it looks nothing like the table you get in the end. So how do you get that final finish on the table, that kind of feel to the touch and the color?
Shimon: So as you say, it’s raw aluminium. It does have a lot of small marks on the surface, it’s not a perfect surface. So what we have to do after that is firstly polish the surface from any defects. So any damage that can even happen in handling or putting it into the CNC machine, this is very commonplace. You get damage on the aluminium surface. So first thing is to polish it to make sure that there are no defects.
After that the process we use to give it the final finish, is sandblast and anodizing. The sandblasting gives it that kind of slightly grainy finish to it. And you have different grades of sandblast, so the higher the number the more smooth the surface is. The lower the number, the more grainy. So we use around 80-100 grade. Then after the sandblast process it’s anodized. Anodizing is an electrochemical process, and what that does is basically oxidizes the surface and what that does is, it gives it the final color that it has and it also hardens the surface so that it’s less prone to scratching and damage.
Tim: So the anodizing process, how does that work? Is it an electrical process?
Shimon: Yes, electrochemical. So you’re basically passing current through the aluminium and it’s in a bath with acid and basically you have a cathode and an anode and so the aluminum gets plated basically by that process.
Tim: So that process is very similar to what you guys use on the regular Streacom products?
Shimon: It is, it’s actually the same finish that we use, yes.
Tim: For example, now that the project is close to completion with the production being all the way and soon completed, how would you reflect back at this whole Open Benchtable project to this point?
Shimon: Er…It’s been great I think [laughs]. I can’t speak from your perspective, but certainly it’s been a fun project and I think what’s been great about it is the fact that, because we do other OEM projects, we do products for other people, but what was great about this is that I think we had a real kind of openness about the project in general. A lot of people come to us with very specific needs, they virtually have the finished product. They just need us to make it, whereas this was a more creative process. It was really fun to explore and again because it’s not a market that we are in, you know, benchtables, we hadn’t done that before. It was fun to learn the new things we needed to know to produce a product like this.
Tim: Well, we are looking forward to seeing how it goes in the market. To see what people say because that’s the most important thing right. To hear what enthusiasts say about it.
Shimon: Of course, it’s always gratifying to know the people appreciate the product and actually want to use it rather than just say, yeah that’s nice.
Tim:[laughs] that’s nice and I put it on my shelf and you know. Especially the point of that table is for being used right? So you mount it and unmount it, change the system on it. We use it daily here at the office to test systems so… for sure for us it’s been great. Even greater for people who buy it.
Thank you Shimon, I think unless you have something else you would like to add or say, that’s about it for the questions I have for you today.
Shimon: Nothing I feel I can add to that. I think we covered everything we needed to.
Tim: Thanks a lot for your time. We’ll probably catch up and look if maybe we can do a production ‘behind the scenes video’ maybe one day at some point. Who knows.
Shimon: You’re welcome to come visit me here.
Tim. Thank you.
Shimon: Thanks Tim.