We sit down with engineers, product leaders, founders, inventors, and tinkerers to talk about their journeys and the state of hardware development.
Matthew Haber, Co-founder & CEO and Phil Gulley, Co-founder & CSO of Cofactr, join us for this edition of Voices of Hardware.
What fascinates you the most about engineering?
Matthew - This is a cliche, but problem-solving is super fun, and engineering is just about solving problems all day, every day. Or at least it should be if the tools work well.
Phil - It’s essentially alchemy! The process of fundamentally creating function from individual components, materials, and ideas is the closest thing to magic I’m aware of.
You both co-founded Cofactr in 2021. What is it, and who does it benefit?
Phil - Cofactr is logistics and supply chain technology for electronics hardware manufacturers. We work as a middle layer between design and manufacturing. There are so many things that can go wrong between design and manufacturing. Every problem pushes back your delivery date. From engineers at OEMs working through NPI all the way to scaled production at CMs, Cofactr’s tools work to make processes faster and more efficient. We’re like an accuracy/reality check at every step between “This is what I want to make” and “This is being made” in electronics.
Matthew - More specifically, we work with lots of rapidly scaling hardware startups building awesome, complicated products like satellites, rockets, and agricultural robots. We also work with the contract manufacturers and EMS providers to these industries.
2021 was littered with headlines regarding the supply chain crisis. As you laid the groundwork for your new company, how did this impact your customers and product roadmap?
Phil - The nightmarish supply chain of the last couple years definitely informed the early days. As a startup solving problems in manufacturing, a lot of our early customers had exactly one concern: Getting the parts. We built some of the first features of Cofactr around this need, including our ability to quickly establish if parts are available through traditional channels, automated RFQ processes, inspection, and traceability documentation. Since then, we’ve been hyper-focused on growing to support the entire pre-manufacturing process in electronics. While the supply chain is still in a less-than-ideal state, Cofactr isn’t mainly about fixing problems when things get terrible. Cofactr is a suite of tools and logistics that make the process of making electronics better for any company in any global conditions. We’re now diving deeper into design tooling, reporting automation, and connecting part supply to finished goods for companies at all scales to save companies time, money, and provide traceability that is really unparalleled in the industry.
Matthew - What Phil said.
This was not the first company you founded. What drew you to the hardware space?
Matthew - It’s hard to beat the satisfaction of holding something in your hands. Hardware is just fun, and even as we’ve worked on all sorts of software products (Cofactr, included), there has always been a draw for us to the world of hardware and the people who inhabit it.
Phil - BeSide Digital was our first baby! Matthew and I were both living in the design and technology space. We had worked in retail technology, museum exhibition, events, and a million other things and had a shared frustration with a lack of diligence and standardization in the hardware used. We started BeSide with the explicit intention of making hardware that was reliable in supporting emergent design. Following that a few years, we were building solutions in automotive, medtech, and consumer spaces. The intersection of hardware and software was always the focus, the markets addressed just got more and more exciting.
Do you see an overlap between engineers using Cofactr and those using AllSpice's platform?
Phil - Absolutely! AllSpice creates so much opportunity to collaboratively design in really exciting ways. Cofactr helps take those designs to the manufacturing line. The material story is linked throughout those processes. Designs have to be manufacturable. I’m sure there are engineers already working between AllSpice and Cofactr. We, at Cofactr, definitely want to help nourish more connection between innovative design, processes, and getting to market with boards in-hand!
Matthew - We’re obsessed with connecting hardware workflows, and joining engineering and supply chain/manufacturing tools is a key step in realizing that vision.
Where is Cofactr heading next?
Phil - It’s a lot of integration with existing software and segmenting the Cofactr product into services. We dove into pre-manufacturing head first, tackling sourcing, procurement, RFQing and broker communications, anti-counterfeiting, logistics, kitting, and everything else. Obviously, not every organization needs all those things. We’re building the next chapter of Cofactr to fit into any process, be it in software like AllSpice, or as a physical warehousing solution.
Matthew - Like Phil said, it’s all about flexibility. We’ve built a super powerful tool for lean teams to manage end-to-end workflows. Now it’s about enabling loads of integrations and modularity so that scaling (and scaled) teams can keep using the tools they like using and slot Cofactr into the gaps.
What are you currently reading?
Phil - Right now, I’m most excited about Neal Cassady: The Fast Life of Beat Hero. That’s my for-funsies book. But there is a whole pile of business books that I thumb through, as well as some on game theory and similarly tangential themes. A quick sampling includes The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte, and Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse.
Are there any engineering resources (videos, podcasts, etc.) you'd recommend?
Phil - We get our knowledge from all over the place. The content that gets me going is conventions and conversations with our customers and vendors. Things move much faster than one might imagine in hardware and the people and relationships are so important.
Matthew - I second Phil’s vote for in-real-life industry communities. There are also some suppliers in the space, like Altium (and AllSpice :) ) that do a great job of producing quality content that isn’t just marketing material. Also, a shoutout to the Amp Hour podcast!
If you travel a decade into the future, what would you be most excited to see that has evolved in engineering?
Matthew - More AI in the design process. We’re certainly not here yet in the hardware engineering space, but the productivity improvements that we’re seeing in software from products like GitHub Copilot will hopefully trickle down to hardware. With the speed of innovation we’re seeing in AI right now, it seems likely that a decade from now, processes and tools are going to look very different than they do today.
Phil - Something akin to parametric design of hardware. There is a ton in the hardware space that is providing various approaches to the most mundane stages of engineering. Meanwhile, collaboration tools like AllSpice are making idea exchange faster, and manufacturing efficiencies are being birthed left and right. I think the time-to-market will drop dramatically, and hardware engineers will have the opportunity to innovate at a pace more akin to the current software ecosystem.