As Bunnie pointed out on his blog, managing the Bill Of Materials (BOM) for a project can become quite complicated. Even a simple project, if it needs to be manufactured by someone else, would benefit from a BOM-specific tool
One such tool is Aligni, a web-based tool that can be used to construct the entire BOM, coordinate with manufacturers and manage inventory. Oh, and Aligni wants to let open source projects use the site for free.
I interviewed Jake Janovetz on what Aligni can do for open source hardware.
Can you give me some background on where Aligni came from and what it’s been used for?
Aligni was created out of a need to manage parts for a small electronics company. Everything on the market was either too big (SAP, Oracle, Agile, Arena PLM), dead (Parts & Vendors), or would not handle inventory (Agile, Arena, etc). We wanted a one-stop shop to handle things from design, part management, BOMs, cost info, inventory, assembly management, quoting, and purchasing. Interestingly, some products out there solved some of these. QuoteFX is a widely used platform for doing quoting via database. I think it runs in the $100′s per month per user. Which is absolutely ludicrous. It’s just a piece of what Aligni does and we do it much better!
What open projects have used Aligni successfully?
Unfortunately, none, really. Some small projects have started and left over the years. We haven’t really pushed hard on Open Aligni. The commercial version of Aligni has lots of successful companies using it.
What do you, or the Aligni team, think about open hardware in general? How do you think it compares to the proprietary approach? Strengths and weaknesses?
We love open hardware. As it has become better defined over the years, it is easier to talk about it. Early on, it was confusing what it really meant. Both open and proprietary are very valid. In particular, a corporate entity will often get a lot of value from using proprietary hardware. It’s simply a matter of motivation and accountability. But Open Hardware is profoundly useful and disruptive (that’s a good thing). We originally introduced Open Aligni because we felt Open Hardware lacked a venue and a proper presentation. The Open Hardware projects out there tend to cobble together some Google Docs or spreadsheets or other things in an inconsistent and hard-to-maintain manner. Aligni is a more structured, disciplined approach to presenting hardware designs and managing them.
More after the jump…
Once an open project applies, how long does it take for them to get approved and start working? Does access ever expire? Is access limited to a certain number of team members?
Not long if they already have a website. Maybe a day or two? Access never expires and you can create as many users as you like. (with reason, Isuppose)
Does open Aligni have all the same features as Aligni, or is it limited to core features. If so, what are they?
Mostly the same. Although we don’t have the Quoting and Purchasing features turned on, if there were interest, we would probably do that.
Every tool has a certain design space. What does Aligni not help with?
Aligni manages the parts used in an operation and just about everything associated with that. However, we don’t manage the designs themselves. That is, the version control on CAD, schematics, HDL, etc. That’s better left to the git and svn realm. When those tools export a BOM, we capture it and can track it. From there, Aligni is great at viewing cost, material requirements, quoting, purchasing, and inventory. Some of these things aren’t necessarily needed by Open Hardware projects so much as they could be used by Open Hardware organizations. Depending on the organization, it might be nice to have a centralized list of parts used so that folks can use the same things. In particular, if they keep any inventory themselves, it’s great to know what is already on-hand.
Do new projects have to build parts entries from scratch, or can they search parts that are already in the Aligni database somewhere?
In Aligni, parts are all private to the “site” or organization. So you start from scratch. It’s pretty easy to create new parts — especially if you already have a list of parts you already own or are using on a project. The point is that the organization should have a finite number of parts to draw upon. They shouldn’t be considering the entire DigiKey inventory as their part manifest. This level of discipline is important to keeping things efficient, encouraging re-use, reducing overhead material, and also making things manageable.
Is there any kind of version control? Like, can someone roll the project back to an older state or fork the current state into a new project (like Github)?
Yes, BOMs can be versioned, rolled-back, compared, etc.
Does Aligni allow open projects to make their BOMs and/or project files available directly from within Aligni, or do they need to extract a final version and host it somewhere else?
Guest access is allowed just like a GitHub repo can have guest access. Or you can export as CSV just as well.
Is there anything about the open version of Aligni that allows for social or collaborative interaction across projects? Once a project is approved can those team members see what other projects have already built or are they siloed?
Within a site, you can create multiple projects — they’re just parts as far as the database is concerned. Need another version? A variant? A subassembly? Doesn’t matter, really.
It looks like a big part of the benefit of using Aligni is that it makes interacting with the manufacturer easier. Does it also make finding and choosing business partners easier, or does that have to happen outside of Aligni? If you find a partner outside, do they have to sign up for Aligni for the two of you to use it to manage parts and orders?
This depends on the level of interaction required. I’m mostly speaking of the commercial version right now because quoting and purchasing are the two supplier-heavy portions. Open Aligni was created primarily to contain and share the projects and part manifest. As I said, we could open up the Quoting and Purchasing to non-guest members of Open Aligni without much issue. In any case, getting quotes from a vendor is easy – Aligni sends them an email with a private response link. They visit the link and fill in the quote info. Purchasing is similar, but they get a PDF copy of the PO in addition to the response link where they can fill in promise dates for delivery. You could also choose to give vendors an account if you like. Typically that isn’t necessary, but it’s possible. You may not want them to see competitive quotes and right now Aligni doesn’t have the granularity to constrain that.
I see a lot of electrical components. Can Aligni handle mechanical/structural components (like from McMaster Carr)? Can Aligni handle parts that need to be fabricated (like custom brackets)?
Sure. Either way. Parts are parts. Custom parts could have the fabrication drawings associated with them as additional files. File assets are stored on Amazon S3 storage.
Is Aligni a tool that is actually integrated with vendors and manufacturers, like they’re the ones who update inventory and part number information?
They can do this through the quoting process. And if you use a contract manufacturer, you may want to give them an account so they can do the inventory updates and manage builds for you directly.