A house in Beaverton near Hart and Murray.
Laptops stacked six high.
Colored tape on the floor.
What is this place, you wonder? The home of a guy who travels a lot? A particularly ascetic frat house? Headquarters for some new cult?
Actually, this suburban home is the Allion wifi test house. Manufacturers such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft bring their products here — sometimes in top secrecy — to test their wifi connections in real-world conditions.
The front room is equipped with multiple screens monitoring the access points (routers) and the devices (tablets, laptops, smart juicers) which are connected to the network. Yes, they can see the name of the neighbor's wifi. But the testers here are more interested how that signal, busting through the sheetrock and pine of a typical Northwestern house, interferes with that next-gen Kindle, which is choking as it tries to gulp down 50 novels or a season of Alpha House.
According to Brad Wheeler, a test engineer, clients like the fact that the house is secured with smart locks and guarded with cameras. "And they like the Star Trek display," he say, pointing to a bunch of merch on the walls. It makes them feel like they are in good hands.
Don't just turn the crank
Ryan Hoppes is the President of Allion, a company founded in Taiwan. It had been doing back-end testing for 20 years when he came aboard in 2010. After 15 years in validation testing groups at Intel Corporation, he saw a fresh niche in the market, and joined Allion in 2010 to spearhead its new division, which had opened in 2008 with scant success.
"There are plenty of companies in Asia that will test a product, but they are all manufacturing-driven. They turn the crank as fast and efficiently as possible," says Hoppes, sitting at the dining room table. What these firms lack is useful feedback, such as suggestions to engineers how to rethink a problem, rather than just slapping them with a 'fail' grade.
The reason Allion's 2008 effort didn't work is because U.S. customers are not at the tail end of the product cycle, they are at the beginning. They are extreme innovators.
"They're Apple, Google and Microsoft, folks trying to push the envelope of product development...There was a huge gap for anyone with experience who is a peer to the engineering group," says Hoppes.
This house tests exclusively wifi. That means gadgets are set up to see how they handle radio signals in different parts of the house. Since, these days, people take their tablets from the pool to the pillow and everywhere in between, always-on connectivity has become big business.
Google Google Google
Today Allion USA has more than 200 customers. Certain mega-companies are not really in the engineering business when it comes to developing product. Hoppes explains that a Chromebook is just a way to get people to use more Google products, as a Kindle is a way to get people to spend more money on Amazon. They don't want to run a big testing staff all year round — they would rather call on Allion one month a year. And when it rains it pours.
"Allion started with four people in 8,000 square feet. There was more crickets than work going on," Hoppes says with a laugh. "But the story resonated. Then Google came to us to test the Chromebook and the acceleration was intense. "They were like 'We need 20 people, now!'"
Allion now has a secure test facility of 50,000 square feet near Tansabourne with 44 dedicated labs. In seven years they have grown their device library impressively. Any new product needs to be tested against hundreds of others it might meet. Arranged in plastic and cardboard boxes, there is almost every phone released in the least seven years — more than $1 million dollar's worth. They have more than 200 television sets. (Hoppes says he just two weeks ago saw a purchase order for 30 TVs.) They run plug-and-play events in hotels rooms for early testing. They also test hundreds of tablet and phone cameras, shooting in a darkened room. Then they advise manufacturers on style. For example, do they want it have the Nikon look or the Cannon look?
As Allion grows, they are looking to move to a space between 100,000 and 200,000 square feet. "We just landed another 70 people — hopefully engineers are growing on trees."
But the real world testing is what makes the company unique. When a product won't connect wirelessly, it's a pain point for manufacturers as well as consumers.
"As a consumer you don't go, 'Oh, I wonder what's wrong with my access point?' You go 'This product sucks!'"
Hoppes and his team get in early on the product cycle: The Nest thermostat, three years before it came out. The Amazon Echo, two years.
"There was a problem with the Fire touch screen, the HDMI grounding was causing 'touches'. Two months before the release date they're like 'Holy crap, we've started finding issues and Jeff is very upset.' Jeff? 'Jeff Bezos. He took it home and it wasn't working."
The problem was solved. "We'll often have our test engineer on a conference call with the company's engineers, sometimes from marketing, the business side, sometimes legal...Sometimes they come and visit," says Wheeler.
And sometimes those visits are exciting. Hoppes recalls when Microsoft wanted their Surface product tested, they sent people ahead to check out the house, to make sure it was trustworthy. The Surface team had worked in a closed lab within Microsoft — even other employees were not allowed in. A senior vice president drove the product down in an unmarked van. It was so early it didn't have a screen. Allion's job was to help Microsoft choose a wireless chipset from three options.
With any good niche market, one job leads to another. "You never know what's going to catch fire. When I heard about Nest I thought, 'No one gives a crap about their thermostat.' I remember those guys when they were in a key lock space above a restaurant near Stanford, five guys on bouncy balls. Now they are at Google and they bring us Google accounts."
When you see "Works with Google Home" (Google's Alexa) on a gadget's packaging, chances are that product was tested by Allion.
A Nest contact led to the June Oven, the web-connected toaster oven with the camera for checking when food is done. He admits he doesn't care if a product works or not, he just wants Allion to be paid to do the testing.
Allion has worked with household brands such as Kohler, Kenmore, Diehard, Craftsman and Brita.
With the Internet of things going mainstream, testing wifi is essential.
Hoppes says the thing about having a good reputation is, "When you're going into a meeting with a good reputation, you're not negotiating whether or not you're the person. You're negotiating how much you get paid."
For confidentiality, Allion has cleared away any proprietary hardware before the Tribune toured the house. There is colored tape on the floor where certain gadgets will be put back later. In a bedroom sits a microphone on a stand. They broadcast a tone for 12 hours and streamed it to see if it glitched out on the wireless system.
In the garage is what looks like a walk-in cooler. It's an RF (radio frequency) anechoic chamber. It is lined with copper and metal powder-infused foam (like the sound insulation in recording studios.) Radio waves can't get in or out, and they do not reflect or echo off the walls. Here, Wheeler places gadgets surrounded by wifi routers, which simulate the reflections found in homes. By measuring throughput he can calculate how well it is picking up a signal.
Mesh networks are becoming more common. They are a series of signal boosters for wifi routers to that signals can reach every corner of a McMansion.
Most tests in the house last two or three hours, then they repeat them. Hoppes lived in the house next door, but as Allion needed more space, he sold and moved out. Now they are interested in buying the house on the other side.
Business is booming. Having become adept at hiring people in a hurry they formed Cinder Staffing, which was named the Portland Business Journal's Fastest-Growing Private 100 Company for 2015. A recent coup was supplying 90 non-technical people to answer the phones for Simple, the online bank. "We know nothing about phone support for a bank, but we know how to onboard people. It's an opportunity!"
Hoppes says revenues were $13 million in 2016 and he expects them to grow 30 to 40 percent in 2017.
With the growth of in-car infotainment and on-board diagnostics, they have options.
And the future? They have a deal with Kuni to borrow cars for testing BlueTooth products. Allion staff also lend their own cars for a couple of hours in return for a movie ticket.
"I'd like to work with car manufacturers — because the BlueTooth in my car sucks," says Hoppes.
Allion USA is part of Vital Enterprises, an umbrella company headquartered in Beaverton, Oregon. Vital Enterprises also includes VTM, an association management firm, among other ventures.
President: Ryan Hoppes
Employees: 100 FTE, 300 contractor workers
Test House Location: undisclosed Beaverton