1,800 employees across two factories. How Ajax Systems creates security systems – a photo essay

The technology company Ajax Systems develops wireless security systems that are among the most technologically advanced globally. Since its founding by Aleksandr Konotopskyi in 2011, the manufacturer has managed to grow 100 times, raise over $10 million in investment, as well as join the list of Ukrainian companies preparing for an IPO.

In 2011, 95% of the market was accounted for by wired systems, whereas in 2021, wireless solutions cover about 70%–80%, and Ajax itself holds a leading position in the segment. Today, the company’s devices protect over 850,000 users in 120+ countries worldwide. Remarkably, all the company’s products are developed and manufactured in Ukraine. Its facilities include R&D offices in Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Vinnytsia, as well as two factories in Kyiv.

The AIN.UA editorial team has visited the main production site of Ajax Systems, situated in the capital. The company’s representatives have shared the principal processes of gadget development and demonstrated all the assembly stages.

Ajax Systems’ facilities

The main factory manufactures all 33 devices in the Ajax product range. Considering that the production facility is closely linked to the R&D department, and they both occupy the same premises, it is the place where the manufacturing of all new devices starts.

The new factory on the Left Bank, which Ajax opened in November 2020, specializes in the production of DoorProtect and DoorProtect Plus window/door opening detectors, SpaceControl key fobs, FireProtect, and FireProtect Plus fire detectors, and ReX signal range extenders. It is planned that in the future, both factories will duplicate each other’s project work and manufacture the entire project range.

Interestingly, in 2016, the factory on Skliarenko Street occupied only one of six floors. In 2021, the facility occupies five floors, which is 4,920 m². At the same time, the production site on the Left Bank has an area of 1,840 m², and Ajax Systems’ warehouse premises occupy 4,300 m² in total.

As of 2021, Ajax Systems employs over 1,800 staff, of whom 1,010 are involved in the production, including 687 employees at the main site and 323 more on the Left Bank. The R&D department is a separate entity; in 2021, the company employs about 350 engineers.

All photos in this feature: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA

Where it all begins

The Ajax R&D center, specifically the Device Department, is responsible for the development of all devices and detectors. The development process for all devices is usually structured as follows. The business team generates an idea: what kind of device should be developed. Then, technical and product requirements to that idea are drawn up. They are passed on to the developers, who decide how and on which basis the device will work, considering the requirements. Following that, the research stage begins, during which similar/competing solutions are tested, and the main components are selected: sensors, processors, camera modules, etc.

After the research stage, the device team and lead present their concept to a wide audience of R&D professionals – it is like “defending a project.” Thus, ideas pass an additional filter and are further refined. And then, the industrial design stage begins. The industrial designer receives the input constraints: for example, the front should have a Fresnel lens on it, the camera in the detector should be oriented at such and such an angle, etc. Based on those requirements, the design of the device is created. But sometimes Ajax works backward: when there are no particular external constraints, the design is created first, and then the complete set is “embedded” into it.

In parallel, the scheme is worked out, and the software is programmed. After that, a printed circuit board (PCB) is developed. Then, depending on the needs, the device casing is printed on a 3D printer or manufactured by hard tooling: the company orders molds not for mass production but simpler and cheaper ones and casts prototypes from plastic. As a result, it gets prototypes in the final design.

Following that, the prototypes undergo extensive testing performed by developers and QA. If something doesn’t take off, it is readjusted, and new prototypes are assembled. And if everything works as expected, a big milestone follows, which takes a lot of money: molds are ordered for the final plastic. The pilot batch is assembled with the final casing and final boards, and this “gear” is used to test the release candidate of the firmware.

Everything ends with beta testing. First, there is a closed beta: devices are distributed among the employees. Then an open beta follows; for that, there is a selection of active users (both in Ukraine and abroad). After that, the device goes into mass production.

The development cycle draws heavily on the device. Ajax can make something simple or based on established technologies in six months. The most complex devices took eighteen months to develop, according to the company’s comments.

How the production is organized

It takes nine hours to make one device. But, since the factory handles devices in batches, the manufacture of one batch of final product units requires 3 to 4 days. First of all, components arrive; they are received at a remote storage depot, laid out, after which they undergo incoming inspection. Two truckloads can be inspected in a day. Ajax Systems works with Swiss, American, Japanese, Chinese, and Dutch brands, having established direct contacts with them. All new Chinese suppliers are subject to approval by the CEO, the company comments. After the incoming inspection, the materials become available for processing.

All Ajax Systems devices go through 4 main production departments: the surface mounting department, assembly department, semi-finished product department, and finished product department.

Surface Mounting (SMT)

This department is responsible for surface mounting components onto PCBs. This kind of mounting is carried out on SMT lines: the printer applies soldering paste to the PCB, the mounter places the components on the board, and then the board is soldered in the soldering furnace. SMT lines produce more PCBs than there are devices in the Ajax product range: this is necessary because some products of the company contain multiple boards each. Usually, a project is launched for 10,000 or 15,000 PCB units, and a working shift at the production area is at least 6 hours long.

Then, there is the AOI, which controls the quality of the soldering. The area has control islands, where one in ten PCBs is checked. As explained by the company, this helps selectively monitor whether the components are placed following the necessary points on the board.

There is a visual/optical inspection at the end of one of the SMT lines. The scanner checks a produced circuit board against the reference photo. If everything is fine, it proceeds to the next stage; if something goes wrong, the QA team re-examines the board to find out the cause and sends it back for re-soldering if necessary. After that, the board goes through another kind of inspection and returns to the route.

The department keeps records. The results are summed up daily – how many PCBs have been made. Performance is measured at each stage and displayed on monitors. This is to understand what buffers exist between the areas to ensure a smooth workflow, the Ajax representatives explain.

Assembly Department

Finished boards are sent to the assembly department, where DIP components are manually soldered onto them. On average, one person can solder around 500 devices per shift. The through-hole mounting is handled by several teams, and each is responsible for a separate device. Ajax notes that the production meets the EU quality standards and uses only lead-free solder alloy.

For components that are difficult to solder, production tools produced at the factory are used. They help lay out the boards and components at the right height and angle. It is noteworthy that all the factory employees wear green antistatic bracelets since the board is destroyed when static occurs.

The production follows the 5S workspace organization system. Each workplace is zoned, so there is space for a soldering station, components, etc. When the shift is over, employees clean their workplace. Ajax notes that by adhering to this method, work has become faster and more efficient.

After the board is soldered, it goes to the varnish area. This is necessary to protect the components from possible condensation that may occur when consumers use them. At the factory, there are manual (when the stenciled varnish is applied) and machine varnish coatings, which speeds up the process significantly.

After the boards are varnished, they are placed in dryers. Drying takes about 4-6 hours. Accordingly, when the varnish dries out, the board is ready for the next stage.

Semi-finished Product Department

Varnished boards are sent to the semi-finished product department. It consists of a test section, where the PCBs get a unique QR code and are flashed, and an assembly section.

In the test site, the board goes through certain control stages. On average, this test takes about 16-20 seconds per unit. If the program sees an error, the PCB is not flashed and takes the test several more times as described in the manual. If it fails, it is sent to the production repair area, where all problems are found and fixed, and then the board is returned to the production flow. It passes the test and only then is transferred to the packing and assembly lines. There are four of them in the main Ajax factory.

At the assembly area, specialists initially do many small operations. For example, they insert buttons or gaskets into the plastic between the case. Each assembler is responsible for a specific set of actions to deliver a finished device at the end of the line. It takes a minute to assemble one product; however, the conveyor line can produce 600 devices of one type or, for instance, 900 devices of another type per day.

There is quality control at all stages of assembly: every employee must check the item for quality before performing their task. The finished product is forwarded to the department of finished products.

Finished Product Department

The first section is a long-test area, through which 100% of Ajax devices go. Here sensors are assigned to the hub, and the employees perform manipulations with the products to check them programmatically.

There is also a production room where the intelligent control panel of the hubs is tested. They are connected to all communication channels, and the battery is tested as well. Moreover, the devices are tested physically in special test rooms. For example, to test the device operation in the dark, the factory has a “black room,” a space with black walls where no light can enter. Thus, the devices are calibrated to proceed further to the quality control section.

At the quality control area, the finished device is once again tested programmatically. Here the workers also check whether the device has passed all the previous stages. While the test is in progress, a visual check is carried out – the product is checked for scratches, gaps under the case, inclusions in plastic, its graininess, and other parameters. Each controller performs certain steps. For example, if it is a MotionCam, they need to swipe a hand in front of the device three times, and so on. When the program sees that the manipulation has been done, they proceed with the check. When the program does not let through the device, it is returned to the skipped stage. If everything is fine, the device is sent to the packaging area.

Overall, the company’s devices go through 11 stages of control. The defect rate is only 0.1 – 0.3%. Production is organized in such a way as to minimize the likelihood of defects and block their transfer from one stage to the other, as Ajax adds. The in-circuit test is used where visual inspection is not possible, such as after soldering and programming. The quality system works from incoming inspection of all the incoming components and semi-finished products to acceptance tests before packaging the finished products.

At the packaging area, the workers fold boxes, pack assembly kits, and add instructions. It is noteworthy that during packing, each assembly kit has to be weighed. A fully assembled product is weighed separately. At this stage, all the necessary stickers and QR codes are attached.

At the end of the process, we get a complete Ajax product. At the end of the line, all devices are scanned and sent to the database, from which you can see how many packed devices are ready for shipment. The production capacity of Ajax Systems is 25,000 items per shift. This means that each of the areas serves 25,000 units during one shift.

Hiring and Working Conditions

Ajax states that it is important to hire employees quickly and efficiently at the same time. They need to be adapted and trained. At the very beginning, candidates will have a short interview with a recruitment consultant, get a small test task, and have an interview with a foreman in the production facility (the department where the candidate will work in). If a person passes an interview, they can go through staff onboarding the next day.

The onboarding day starts with an Intro (a training on product, company, quality, health, and safety), followed by signing the documents and a tour around the production facility. The next day, the candidate becomes an employee, and their senior colleagues (foremen) help them adapt to the workplace.

Further, the newcomer will have a one-month probation period. The person is given a checklist, which has to be filled out during this period. It helps the newcomer to get acquainted with the different stages of production and learn certain skills. After the probation period and successful certification, the person is introduced to their position. There is a referral program – an employee can invite a friend and, after their friend goes through the probation period, they will receive a monetary reward.

The production facility has a grading system. After the certification, everyone confirms their qualifications or improves them. The first certification is carried out three months after the start of work, other ones – every six months. Based on the results of the assessment, the employee is assigned a grade. And this is the way they can influence their level of income. At all the production stages, senior employees can switch people between operations. Thus, everyone can try themselves at different stages.

Most of the employees work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; however, some areas work 24/7. For example, SMT installation specialists work in shifts: the machines stop only for readjustments and maintenance. The same schedule works for the test and long-test departments.

Work during the quarantine

With the imposition of the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ajax Systems continued its work. The company launched transportation to subway stations, disinfected workplaces, and informed employees about the necessary protective measures. As noted by the management of Ajax, at this time, they worked according to the strategy of “no layoffs” – the staff was not laid off, but new team members were not recruited as well. At the same time, the salaries of the employees remained the same. Those who self-isolated kept their jobs.

Despite some difficulties with parts and components delivery to factories, the Ajax factory actively produced devices. Ajax started recruiting new employees after the easing of quarantine restrictions. The production has doubled: if in January 2020, there were 456 employees, in December, its number grew to 1,000. The company’s goal for 2021 is to recruit 1,000 more employees to work at the new factory on Boryspilska.

Ajax noted that it planned to hold the second Ajax Special Event, a large online presentation of the company’s new products in 2021. It is going to present several new products; however, the company does not disclose detailed information.