As Senior Hardware Engineer, James Stevick works with our hardware team to develop, build, and test our Clarity Nodes and Modules, streamline the build process, and manage software and hardware tools in Clarity’s research and development work. James’ background in mechanical engineering eventually led him to the air quality monitoring space, where he now works to power Clarity’s mission of creating a world with clean air for all.
How did you end up working in the air quality space?
Serendipity, kismet, happenstance. I’d love to say air quality or environmental policy was always a passion of mine, but I really stumbled upon Clarity while searching for a hacky hardware start-up. I intentionally and successfully avoided a corporate role with a pigeon-holed job function, but the company culture and developing a passion for health / environmental policy was a pleasant surprise.
What role does your team play in advancing Clarity’s mission?
My team works on the hardware enabling our air quality monitoring solutions, so we are the first tangible step in Clarity’s mission. While many solutions to air pollution are intuitive or built from observation, many are created or enhanced with reliable and comprehensive data. My team builds the hardware that samples the real environment and outputs a digital characterization in dependable datasets.
What does a typical day at Clarity look like for you?
My days at work vary a lot depending on the project at hand. In general, I am running a test to determine a question necessary for the development of our product, whether that is determining the lifetime of a key component, or evaluating new sensors to integrate into our product. Actually running an experiment is generally a small percentage of my time compared to designing the said test, analyzing the data, extracting conclusions, or compiling a report. At other times I’ll be overseeing manufacturing, helping our Customer Service Management team answer hardware-related questions, developing pieces of production firmware, or providing mechanical dimensioning to other colleagues. I generally have an averaged even split between hands-on hacky engineering and deskwork with data analysis, programming, or CADing.
What’s the process look like for designing, building, and testing the Clarity nodes?
There are many moving parts behind the production of hardware. Mechanical design, selecting components and sensors, and writing operating firmware are the main tasks to create a minimum viable product (MVP), but there are many supporting tasks such as R&D and quality assurance. When I joined Clarity, our factory was producing devices for validation testing - essentially smaller batches aimed at production quality but intended to expose issues and bugs. Our mechanical design was outsourced to a design company and the sensors inside the Clarity Node are products in themselves with much larger companies entirely focused on their development. It might sound like all the work is done for us, but these sensors are rudimentary compared to the function of the Clarity Node.
We are constantly updating the quality of the Clarity Node which requires a lot of R&D. Our sensors run through a competitive analysis where they are compared to other sensors and stress tested in terms of accuracy, precision, resistance to environmental effects, and lifetime with a multitude of experiments. For individual sensors, main components, and the Node in general, we identify failure modes and mitigate them with physical or firmware-related changes. We often search for and qualify new sensors to update our current sensors or add sensing ability. A lot can go wrong among solar power management, internet connectivity, multiple circuit boards, multiple MCUs, laser-based sensors, electrochemical sensors, and moving parts such as fans. We leverage experimental design to test our solutions during the design process.
Now that our devices are in mass production, changes require more thorough testing before being introduced into production, and our devices must be well tested at the factory to ensure quality. We designed many steps at the factory, often requiring custom software and standard operating procedures, to fully test our devices, calibrate sensors, and trace parts for operations, issue tracking, and root cause analysis. These processes change as our product changes, new sensors and functions are introduced, and our quantity of production increases.
How has the Node-S evolved over time? Can you tell us a bit about add-on Modules, and the engineering work required to make them commercially available?
The Node-S changes to increase quality and to meet the demands of customers and the direction of public policy and environmental solutions. For instance, many internal sensors are affected by temperature, so a few experiments led to us adding an insulating aluminum shield to reduce internal temperature.
Our technology has always kept modularity in mind to leverage the research and development of other sensor developers and quick integration. One issue we faced was slow sensor integration, limited number of sensors, and size of sensors (that had to fit inside the Clarity Node). The solution was add-on Modules which can plug into an external port and communicate data to the Clarity Node and integrate into our cloud system. This allows us to quickly meet customer demands with additional sensing capabilities and add sensors that have earned a reliable reputation and customer loyalty.
The work to integrate a module varies depending on multiple factors. Our protocol requires custom firmware and hardware cables - so sensor companies must read our hardware protocol and ensure proper communication protocols through firmware and proper communication ports and cables. We work heavily with companies to accomplish this.
Recently, I developed a software that tests the Modules and identifies issues, which aids companies in firmware development and ensuring their Modules meet our protocol specifications. If the demand is for a type of sensing rather than a sensor company, we set up tests to run a competitive analysis on multiple sensor companies and qualify the sensors to ensure they meet our requirements in terms of data quality.
As someone who has now been with Clarity for over 5 years, how have you seen the air quality and environmental space change over the years? What about the technology used in this space?
The only notable change I have noticed is awareness, which is great, and a large part of Clarity’s mission. Awareness drives emotional and financial motivation and that creates positive feedback as those both drive innovation and growth which lower barriers to the industry.
High-end technology has been relatively stable in terms of innovation, but the space of low-cost applications of simple technology is morphing and adapting quickly. The underlying technology hasn’t changed much because it is sufficient, but the applications and strategy surrounding them are improving constantly at a fast rate due to the cheap prices.
Barring the electrochemical space, where the underlying technology to sense various gasses is not sufficient and is extremely affected by temperature and humidity. This hasn’t been solved over the time I’ve been in the industry and while our methods for mitigating environmental effects have improved, it remains an issue for the air quality space.
How have you seen Clarity evolve as a company over the past 5 years?
I’ve seen a lot of changes at Clarity around me: more employees, more meetings, more structure, and more professionalism, yet the culture, passion, and drive within the company have luckily remained through my time.
We are constantly innovating within the company as well, our knowledge base growing, which really feels like our company as an entity growing from a teenager to a young adult. But that feeling may also come from the fact that the company was born out of a UC Berkeley class project with the founder being newly graduated.
What excites you most about the next several years for Clarity?
It feels like we have added a ton of talent to our already impressive team, and along with new financial resources, Clarity is boundless. We have had so many great ideas to improve our technology, but without the proper resources, we have not been able to see them out. I’m excited to chase after our goals without inhibitions and see the impact we make in the industry. I constantly get to see my impact at the company in terms of development, but I would love to observe the effects we have on the entire industry.
What is the most gratifying part of your work with Clarity?
I find that personally seeing the growth and impact that I create at the company is most gratifying. Part of that is working at a small company, but also the culture allows for autonomy and autonomy fosters the motivation to create an impact where you see fit. Trusting my colleagues and seeing how they trust me is extremely fulfilling when working on a project with a profound mission. The mission itself is also extremely gratifying. It is a source of inspiration that makes feeling an impact that much more meaningful to me.
What do you like to do when you aren’t working to improve air quality?
When I’m not at work I have a plethora of hobbies. I most enjoy spending quality time, exerting myself physically, and eating good food with close friends. However, I also love to garden, spend time at my ceramics studio, rock climb, bike, run, drink coffee, and hot tub. I love spontaneous activities that make life feel unplanned and unpredictable. I also like to use my hardware skills for side projects, such as building automatic plant feeders and drones. I like when my time at work feels connected to my time outside of work.