The engineering and product teams return from extended trips to the Atari VCS and PowerA factories in China with lots of photos and detailed behind-the-scenes updates.
In the earliest days of the Atari VCS project, our design engineers and factory partners shared a common maxim with the leadership team: “It’s called ‘hardware’ because it’s hard!” While that sentiment still rings true, the work has been immensely satisfying and rewarding. There is nothing better than seeing a key element of the hardware or software come together in one of those wonderful “Eureka!” moments.
In the case of the Atari VCS hardware and peripherals, they are definitely coming together. There have been small setbacks, but that’s expected and considered normal, so the team is happy to report that the Atari VCS hardware and input devices are nearly final and it won’t be long before we “flip the switch” on mass production!
Engineering Validation Testing
The Atari VCS project is wrapping up a phase of intense engineering validation testing, commonly referred to as “EVT,” which is used to confirm and correct every aspect of the hardware and how it operates as a device, independent of the software, such as games and apps that will eventually run on it.
There are many things to check, validate and potentially correct during the EVT phase. Sometimes they are just subtle tweaks, and other times they are genuine course corrections that require the engineers to completely rethink how they approached something in the original design.
Before the product team can undertake the production run for EVT, they get all the various parts and sub-assemblies collected and coordinated with suppliers. Much of this process was described in our “Plastics, Thermals and Internals” blog. As we said in that report, the plastic housings and fascia pieces are the very last things to be addressed. The units shown here today still have the shiny plastics of pre-production that we have described previously. The finished Atari VCS units will look super-premium, with all the beautiful matte surfaces, rich wood fascias, and other details everyone expects.
While all of that preparation work and component collection is going on, the factory team is busy planning for how the final assembly line processes will go. They carefully develop plans for how all the parts are stored, handled and deployed through every step of the process. This includes creating jigs and guides and determining the best order of assembly, deciding when and where they will use automation (yes, there are numerous robots, plus also many conveyor belts and other factory machines available) versus skilled human workers. The EVT line is essentially the factory’s dress rehearsal of the manufacturing process or “box build” assembly line.
For EVT, the factory puts their proposed assembly line to the test, using the actual parts and components, and builds 100 complete Atari VCS units in a reduced-speed line over the course of several days. (The exact same kind of assembly-line testing happens in concert at the PowerA manufacturing facilities.) Once the units are assembled they go through extensive quality assurance tests of every aspect of the mechanical designs.
So what did the Atari VCS EVT process tell us? A lot… much of which is related to the AMD R1606G Ryzen™ processor.
As most Atari VCS backers and fans know, the system is powered by an all-new AMD processor. That processor is so new that it is still in its early days of deployment, and only Atari and a few PC manufacturers have access to it. This means the Atari engineers are part of a small group that is pioneering the implementation of AMD’s high-performance, single-chip solution.
Despite early success with the new AMD Ryzen™ development platform, when the team fired up the first batch of EVT form-factor units, the HDMI port was outputting HD video, but not full 4K video and audio.
Fortunately, AMD was able to confirm that this was a not-yet-documented-but-known issue, and recommended a fix. Now excellent 4K quality video and audio is now pumping through the HDMI output. The team still had to rework every one of the EVT VCS units, including several that were already in the hands of our software development partners, but the issue was efficiently addressed.
EVT testing also revealed some issues related to WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, and working with PowerA we found some opportunities to improve the the all-new Classic Joystick’s paddle functionality. Working with an experienced peripheral manufacturer like PowerA has been great. The mix of classic and modern features required in the reimagined joystick challenged the engineers at PowerA to innovate and deliver some new, creative solutions.
The EVT process includes time for the team to make final adjustments to the main PCB board, and they found several small opportunities to improve and streamline the electrical routing and eliminate some circuits, resistors and other small parts. Again, this is a detailed testing process that takes a lot of time and attention to work through effectively.
Refining the Manufacturing Process
During the EVT phase the factory team also puts the manufacturing process itself through its paces and looks for creative ways to make the assembly line more efficient. Often this requires designing and building custom assembly fixtures that will make a number of specific processes smooth and consistent. It’s also important that the many delicate parts are always protected during assembly and that they fit together precisely in order to guarantee a high yield. Our factory partner was able to provide us with a number of their “work-in-progress” fixture design drawings to share here, which address several critical parts of the box build.
For example, the thermal module assembly fixture shown here is designed to make sure that the module aligns perfectly with a set of bracket holes surrounding the AMD processor, so that it will keep everything cool while gaming or watching multimedia.
There are other assembly fixtures that operate more like shop presses, in order to attach various components to the PCBA board evenly and with the correct amount of pressure so that they do not damage the delicate circuits traversing the board.
Here’s a press fixture that perfectly places the front-facing USB 3.0 ports into the bottom housing securely, without scratching or compressing the plastic parts.
Another interesting fixture enables the top housing to be safely supported and protected from scratching while the wifi and bluetooth antenna and related cables are installed.
Now that most of the Atari VCS manufacturing process kinks have worked out, we are excited to be sharing a number of new images straight from the factory floor in this update.
Next Step: Design Validation Testing
As you can see, everything is going together beautifully and we are outputting actual working Atari VCS pre-production units. So what does this mean for fans and backers of the Atari VCS? It means that we are officially “in the endgame.” We will soon begun the next critical phase of production — design validation testing (DVT). This is the final part of the manufacturing prep process, where the factory confirms that all of the parameters for a successful finished product are met, especially with regard to fit and finish and user experience. DVT is the last phase before the Atari VCS enters true mass production and units start heading out the door wearing their final finishes and colors.
We look forward to delivering a detailed update on DVT and a more detailed status report from the PowerA factory about the Classic Joystick adjustments and mass production of it and the Modern Controller. In the meantime, backers should keep an eye open for the moment when the icon at the top of the Indiegogo page switches from “Prototype” to “Production.” Right now, we can’t and won’t designate a specific day and time this will happen, and even though we are technically in “production” based on Indiegogo’s definition, we have elected to hold off and use that designation to officially indicate the time when we are finally into true mass production. That’s going to be a great day and it’s coming soon!
As always, thanks for your ongoing support!
— The Atari VCS Team
P.S.: As always, see more at AtariVCS.com!