The unique energy of SwipBox
Post & Parcel spoke to Allan Kaczmarek, CDO & Founder of SwipBox, to find out how SwipBox tackled the issue of sourcing components for their Infinity parcel lockers.
Tell me about the problems you have had sourcing components for your parcel lockers?
There has been an issue with components for companies in many areas of manufacturing, not just for SwipBox. But for us we were having trouble getting hold of our microcontrollers. We started to see the price for the microcontrollers which are manufactured abroad increasing and increasing. Normally they are $2, and they were going for more than $4,000 – it was going ballistic!
What do microcontrollers do?
The microcontroller is the ‘little brain’ inside the infinity parcel lockers. The ones we use are only half a centimetre in size but have a vital function. Inside each one is 10,000 lines of computer code – something which can’t be replicated with a snap of the finger.
Every parcel locker has one microcontroller in it and every time a consumer uses the parcel locker the chip receives all the information over Bluetooth (for example when a consumer puts a return parcel in the locker), and then decrypts it and follows the commands.
Why is there an issue with getting components?
There are a few reasons but primarily there is extremely high demand for microcontrollers. It started just before COIVD-19 in 2020.
The demand increased – and at the same time the computer chips are made in just a few factories round the world so there was a lot of pressure on these companies to provide the technology.
Also, the demand is rising for microcontrollers in the automotive industry as more people are switching to electric cars which are built on microcontrollers. The microcontrollers are used to turn on the taillights, the headlights, the heaters, power windows, braking and steering.
Why couldn’t you use a different microcontroller?
It wasn’t as easy as choosing a different chip – we were using a really small, energy efficient chip and if we wanted to use a different chip we would need to sit down and write 10,000 lines of code and that’s quite complicated and time consuming. We were also concerned that if we had chosen the wrong chip or if we changed to a new chip which was more affordable, and this chip then became too expensive it would put us in limbo again so it would only be a short-term fix.
If you had run out of the components, what would it have meant for SwipBox?
We had to ensure our customers got their parcel lockers so initially we paid a lot of money for the microcontrollers to ensure our customers felt safe and secure about the products but meanwhile we sat down and came up with a plan B.
So, what did you decide to do?
We realised that if the prices were going to continue to go crazy, we had to figure out the answer ourselves and we had six months to do it to ensure we fulfilled our contracts.
Inside every computer there’s a microcontroller and an operating system running on top of it. We didn’t want to be tied to one type of microcontroller, so we ended up choosing an operating system called Zephyr which gives us freedom of choice as it was compatible with a number of microcontrollers. So, in early 2022, using Zephyr, we set ourselves the job of rewriting our entire software code which is placed on these small microcontrollers. And as we weren’t pinned down to one type of microcontroller, we are now able to use many types of microcontrollers.
Who was responsible for writing the code?
Myself and six other people dedicated ourselves to writing this code for five months. It really should have taken a year, but we had to speed it up because we needed to get the first deliveries of the parcel lockers out in the Summer of 2022. And we succeeded. We ended up delivering the first of the parcel lockers with the new chips at the beginning of August.
What are the benefits of the new code?
The new microcontrollers have a very low carbon footprint, so they are even more energy efficient. But the main benefit of the new software is that if the microcontroller we are using now goes out of production or suddenly becomes very be expensive we can select another one and it doesn’t require a full year to rewrite the software, it just requires some small adjustments. So that is very reassuring for us because we can continue delivering. And, we can say that with a high degree of confidence to our customers, we will be able to deliver.
What does your journey with the components say about SwipBox?
As the founder of the company, I have seen SwipBox grow and grow. But when it comes down to it, we still have a core group of people who can gather around the table and agree we have the agility, and we can make things happen. This is a unique energy which I hope we can keep forever.