3 Tips to Keep Your PCB Development on Schedule

“In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before everything else. For whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middle game and opening must be studied in relation to the end game.” 

—Jose Raul Capablanca, chess master

There has always been pressure on design teams to deliver on schedule. Nothing is more frustrating than pushing your team to release the design on schedule and then to find out that your first prototype build will be delayed due to several common, avoidable errors.

Here are some tips to help manage risk and to avoid unnecessary delays:

TIP #1 – Select a Supplier Early

Engage your potential suppliers early before your design package is ready for a quote. Ask them explicitly what would help them deliver your PCBA on time. By interacting with them early, you’ll get a feel for the level of support you’ll get in the future.

Setup payment in advance

If the supplier offers credit terms, fill out the credit application in advance. Once you have approved credit with the supplier, it will provide the flexibility to make changes quickly without having to re-authorize subsequent credit card charges, provide additional cash deposits, or send multiple wire transfers. And, of course, make sure you pay your invoices on time to prevent delays on subsequent orders that are held up for delinquent payments.

Provide a preferred shipping carrier

If possible, set up your preferred carrier in the supplier’s system. Then there will be no delays waiting for shipping instructions. I know that this seems obvious, but double check that the billing and shipping addresses are entered correctly as well.

TIP #2 – Plan for Parts Management

Long Part Lead Times

During the design phase, it is important to browse online distributors and take a cursory look at the current stock and standard lead times, especially for single-sourced or unique parts. Begin securing parts as soon as the architecture is stable. Don’t wait until the BOM is finalized before ordering parts. Otherwise you may be in for an unpleasant surprise when parts that were available weeks ago will not be back in stock for several months.

Parts Procurement

Clearly, you will want to avoid paying for additional markup on parts if the supplier orders them, right? However, if you decide to manage the parts yourself, realize that you will be paying for shipping twice: once from the distributor and once to your supplier which may actually cost you more in shipping charges for low cost parts. Also, you’ll assume the handling liability if your supplier discovers problems during the incoming inspection and you will be responsible for handling any warranty claims with component vendors. However, most suppliers order parts daily from distributors so they are able to amortize shipping costs among multiple orders and they likely get better pricing than you can due to their order volume. IMHO, the best approach is to have your supplier secure parts so that the liability rests with them.

Permit substitution for common components

Large suppliers have an existing inventory of common parts, especially passives. If you permit them to substitute for common parts you will save additional costs and reduce the risk that your specified parts will delay your build.

Quote PCB fabrication early

Once the layout is mostly complete, prepare a design package for quoting purposes. This enables the PCB supplier to provide preliminary feedback on your the design. This may include highlighting missing information or identifying errors that would hold prevent the supplier from fabricating the PCB. The longer the turnaround time, the less expensive the PCB fabrication should be. If you can plan for a four-week turn PCB fab, you will get the best pricing possible. Also, components can be ordered concurrently so that all the material will arrive at the same time.

TIP #3 – Plan for Test

Except for the first pass PCBs, you will likely want some level of test for subsequent builds to ensure basic quality.

Provide a Basic Test Procedure

Yes, it will cost extra. BUT, how disappointing will it be when you discover that 6 out of 10 boards don’t work! Either you’ll have to debug them yourself or send them back for warranty. Most warranties are only going to cover workmanship defects anyways. However, if you provide a test, you provide the supplier an opportunity to detect defects and possibly rework the PCBs to correct the defects which will yield more working boards delivered to you.

Test Software

If your PCB design has programmable parts, create a basic test firmware image that can be programmed into the unit. The test software should provide a simple indication to the test technician that confirms that the device is operating properly.

Test Equipment

If your device requires specialized test equipment, check if your supplier can rent it for your project. You should only invest in more advanced test strategies such as flying probe, ICT/MDA, and JTAG boundary scan once your design is finalized. Otherwise, you’ll end up paying NREs multiple times which may hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Summary

Remember, that the first build of your design is just the initial step toward the goal of producing a cost-effective, reliable, and quality product.

Don’t be short-sighted and plan ahead for the end game.

Minimize Launch Risk for New Electronic Products Without an Established Order History

New Electronic Products

For new electronic products that are just being introduced to the market without an established order history, it can be daunting to forecast the initial order quantities and the related timeline.

You’ll need to develop a high confidence plan that minimizes the risk of building too many units, too soon versus not building enough units. If you build too many units, you’ll have a ton of cash tied up in inventory. If you build too few, you may lose potential orders since you won’t be able to fulfill orders fast enough for anxious customers.

The basic business goal is to minimize finished goods sitting in inventory while having the ability to rapidly respond to new orders.

You’re optimistic that the orders will come rolling in…

The product will sell itself, right?

BUILDING A FORECAST

If you have customer pre-orders booked, you can establish a minimum quantity for the first build.

You may also need:

  • Marketing units for press reviews
  • Sales units for product demonstrations
  • Trial units for early customer evaluations
  • Replacement units for warranty claims

For subsequent builds, you will need to answer some not-so-simple questions such as:

  • How many units are expected to be built per lot? 10, 50, 200, or more?
  • How many units are expected to be built per month or per quarter?
  • How many units should be kept in stock to quickly fulfill orders?
  • At what minimum inventory threshold should another lot of units be built?
  • Will customers order units one-at-a-time or in 100 unit quantities?
  • How many warranty returns are expected?
  • Will the orders be bursty?

You’ll have to answer these questions carefully and plan accordingly.

STANDARD APPROACH

The standard approach is to engage a traditional contract manufacturer (“CM”) with the necessary equipment and services to build your new electronic product. The CM will generate a quote to build your product using an internal financial modeling process based on the expected annual unit volume with the number of builds at a certain lot size.

The CM will expect you to provide a rolling forecast so that the production plan can be updated frequently in order to make the necessary adjustments to outstanding material orders and staffing plans. Unanticipated delays, canceled orders, and/or order shortfalls (or spikes) can have negative financial consequences for you depending on the terms of your agreement with the CM.

If your actual orders do not match the forecast, you may have to pay for material in inventory in advance of units being built or you may be charged expediting fees for material to meet unplanned demand.

Additionally, not meeting your order volume and timeline commitments can sour your business relationship with the CM.

For a new product without an established order history, it is very difficult to predict the size and the timing of the early orders. Therefore, the likelihood of not meeting expectations is relatively high.

ALTERNATIVE APPROACH

Instead of engaging a CM to launch a new electronic product, you should consider using a rapid prototyping provider initially until your orders stabilize.

A provider’s business is structured to build products in small lots in just a few days or weeks. This capability can help you swiftly fulfill new orders while minimizing unit inventories and reducing the corresponding working capital requirements. Also, because there is no ongoing commitment beyond the current order, you’ll have the flexibility to change the timing or size of future orders as necessary.

While the provider’s business model works well for early prototype development, it has some shortcomings for production runs. For example, a CM will inventory and manage excess parts between builds. Therefore, you will likely only pay for parts consumed per build. However, the provider will build in the total cost of all the parts, including the excess parts, per build. Most significantly, you will pay a premium per unit price using a rapid prototyping service.

PARTS MANAGEMENT

Often providers will not hold excess material between builds unless there is a subsequent build planned in the near future. Any excess parts are either discarded or shipped back to you.

While it might seem appealing to store the parts at your location, you will be responsible for inspecting the parts upon arrival, counting the remaining parts, and ensuring that they are handled and stored properly.

You have three options for ordering and managing parts:

  1. Have the provider order and manage the parts. Most providers do not directly charge the shipping costs of parts, but they will usually add a material handling fee based on a percentage of the total parts’ cost.
  2. Order the parts from suppliers and distributors to be shipped directly to the provider. You pay for shipping charges for parts once.
  3. Order the parts and them shipped to your location. Then kit all the parts and ship them to the provider. You pay for shipping charges for parts twice.

If you choose to have the provider return the excess parts to you, then you will pay shipping charges for parts once again!

Sometimes you will need to order and manage the parts directly for a variety of reasons, however, IMHO Option 1 is almost always the best choice. Although you’ll pay a slight premium on the parts versus ordering them directly, the provider will be responsible for resolving any problems.

Remember. It only takes one missing part to prevent a build from being completed and delaying your orders.

OPTIMIZE FOR LOT SIZE

Ideally, you should calculate an optimal build lot size during the design phase so that excess material can be minimized. The smaller the optimal build lot size, the better since it will provide you the flexibility to incrementally adjust the build sizes as needed.

However, there is one financial constraint that you should consider when attempting to minimize the lot size. Every build has setup charges. As the lot size shrinks, the portion of the setup charges that are amortized into the unit cost may become a more significant factor than excess material. Ask the provider to break out setup charges on a per build basis so that the impact on the total unit cost can be evaluated.

PART SELECTION PROCESS

Start with focusing on the high-cost components such as ICs (“Integrated Circuits”) that tend to be unique parts. Seriously consider whether the design requires a unique part, especially if it is non-stocked with long lead times, or is only available from a single distributor or directly from the manufacturer. It is advantageous to have multiple options from several vendors, not only for cost considerations but also for lifecycle and availability reasons. Select as many parts as possible that are stocked and available from multiple distributors. Finally, be aware of large MOQs (“Minimum Order Quantity”) for high-cost components if there is no option to re-reel parts to obtain smaller quantities.

For many other parts, it is possible to select alternates with the same package and similar performance characteristics. Strive to build a large AML (“Alternate Material List”) for each of these components and to identify the ones with the smallest MOQs.

Clearly, you shouldn’t spend time optimizing for sub-penny parts. For example, if a single SMD resistor only comes in reels of 10,000 pcs @ $0.002 each, the total cost will still be $20 even though only a couple of hundred parts will be used. Unless your product design requires specialized parts with unique characteristics or high-performance requirements, a better strategy is to allow open substitution for passives since these are the least expensive commonly available parts.

YIELD CONSIDERATIONS

Realize that 500 parts sets will not yield 500 working units. There will be attrition of parts during the build process.

How many parts do you need for PCB assembly?

Plan for lower yields when using a provider instead of a CM. In general, a provider’s process is not as refined as a CM’s process. A CM will iteratively improve the product’s manufacturability over multiple builds which will increase the yield over time.

Providers may provide informal feedback or even a post-build report on the manufacturability of the product. It’s important for you to review this feedback and to remedy any deficiencies in the product design before the next build.

Always attempt to select parts that are reeled or in trays to optimize for automated assembly. Loose parts or those packaged in tubes will increase the risk of loss, mishandling, damage, and unnecessary wastage.

Even with careful packaging and handling, some components will be discarded during setup of the equipment and possibly lost during assembly. Check with the provider on the what percentage of component loss per setup should be expected and plan accordingly.

Don’t despair! There are ways to help your provider increase the yield.

While test options offered by the provider are typically more limited than those offered by CMs, many suppliers offer AOI (“Automated Optical Inspection”), x-ray inspection, and flying probe test. Each of these test and inspection services requires some level of programming or setup charges, but they don’t require any investment in custom test fixtures.

If possible, provide a basic functional test procedure with specific instructions and objective pass/fail criteria. Preferably, the procedure should not require any specialized test equipment. However, it is fine to require commonly available test equipment such as oscilloscopes and multi-meters.

These inspection and test processes facilitate identifying defective units during the build process which will give the provider an opportunity to rework them thereby increasing the yield.

SUMMARY

As your orders stabilize for your new electronic product, you’ll be in a better position to select a CM partner that can the optimize cost, quality, and delivery of your product for its remaining lifecycle. But, in the short-term, you may be well served by leveraging the flexibility of a rapid prototyping provider.

Market Trends Impacting IoT Hardware Lifecycle

With rapid innovation comes rapid obsolescence.

Every day there are industry announcements for new platforms, new sensors, and new wireless technologies for IoT applications. While often overlooked, these IoT hardware solutions that capture, process, and transmit sensor data have inherent lifecycle issues that must be proactively managed.

Unidentified technology dependencies can cripple an IoT solution deployment just as it’s beginning to scale or can substantially escalate the maintenance and operating costs that undermine the business case assumptions.

Either scenario is a disaster from a business perspective.

Lifecycle Impacts

Frequently IoT devices will need to be available for 3, 5, 10 years, or more which requires vigilance to actively manage component lifecycles.

Otherwise, the consequences will force costly, unplanned design iterations.

Not only does this multiply the initial development investment, but it will also greatly increase the complexity of managing a plethora of heterogeneous IoT devices comprised of numerous disparate hardware and software revisions.

There are several IoT market trends that are driving lifecycle risks for IoT products.

Standards? We don’t need no stinkin’ standards

In general, standards drive costs lower by increasing competition among suppliers and by driving volume production. However, with hundreds of emerging standards, it’s circumspect that history is littered with promising standards that never gained sufficient market traction that either died outright or that have been regulated to niche applications and never gained broad industry acceptance.

While there are over 450 platforms of emerging IoT standards and related working groups, there is no existing market consensus for IoT standards. Although there are companies working to help consolidate IoT platforms, it is unlikely that standards will converge in the near future.

Wireless – Times They Are a-Changin’

For IoT platforms, there are big changes in the wireless networking space with a wide variety of competing technologies.

On the surface, one might assume that technology which uses licensed radio standard would be the most stable choice. However, recent history demonstrates that as technology evolves and the usage for legacy applications decreases, such as for paging and wireless microphones, the FCC will move to reallocate frequency spectrum for other more popular services such as cellular data services.

For cellular networks, the sunset for 2G and 3G networks is ongoing while futuristic 5G networks are already being rolled out in test deployments. Finally, cellular CAT-1M and NB-IoT are technologies that address key IoT requirements such as minimizing power consumption, limited data rates, and aggressive unit cost targets.

An emerging challenger to cellular networks’ dominance for WAN class IoT applications is a group of competing LPWAN technologies, for licensed and unlicensed spectrum, that include both proprietary and open standards to support IoT applications with low data rates and extended ranges.

For short-to-midrange networks, Bluetooth, ZigBee/802.15.4, and WiFi will continue to dominate. Bluetooth is ready for IoT with the most recent standard adding not only low energy capabilities (BLE) but also multi-point network connectivity. Novel Wi-Fi™ modules with very low power consumption work well for IoT defined area networking applications that require low latency, higher data rates, and simple connectivity to existing private networks. While ZigBee/802.15.4 networks still find niche applications that need dynamic, mesh network configurations paired with low power sensors.

Semiconductor Consolidation

“…technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.” – the Borg

As the semiconductor industry continues to consolidate, the inevitable wave of PCN (“Product Change Notice”), EOL (“End-of-Life”), and LTB (“Last-time-Buy”) notices will accelerate as unprofitable, legacy product lines are rationalized and replaced by newer models that leverage updated process technologies.

This is not only a concern for new designs, but it also impacts existing products that are already deployed in the field. For long-lived applications with extended lifecycles, obsolete components can impair the ability to repair and to provide replacement products.

These impacts are exacerbated by product regulatory requirements from government agencies such as the FCC, FDA, or FAA of from industry bodies such as PTCRB for cellular certifications that require additional testing, filings, approvals, and documentation that increase the time and cost for each design cycle.

Knock, Knock – Addressing Emerging Security Threats

It is very likely field software upgrades will be REQUIRED for any IoT product over its lifecycle. Not only for bug fixes or feature updates but to deal with the never-ending scourge of emerging security threats.

Daily, IT security professionals update software to patch security vulnerabilities in PCs and servers. The tools and techniques to combat threats are mature, but constantly evolving to address increasingly sophisticated attacks.

Most IoT platforms are embedded systems that may not have the necessary toolsets and software to combat security threats. Unfortunately, this security through obscurity myth was shown to be vulnerable by the Mirai botnet attack as well as several other attacks.

Summary

These are just a few of the market trends that continue to impact IoT hardware development. Each trend should be fully considered and addressed for any product lifecycle strategy.

IoT Hardware 101 – The Basics

Most of the IoT (“Internet-of-Things”) hype is about a futuristic vision that has billions of devices generating massive data streams that will be fed into advanced machine learning and AI (“Artificial Intelligence”) systems to create enormous business value. However, often overshadowed in these grandiose discussions is the IoT hardware which makes it all possible.

What is IoT?

IoT is a system of sensor devices, servers, and people connected via IP (“Internet Protocol”) networks. Sensor devices capture and process sensor data, transmit the sensor data to servers where the data is stored and processed in conjunction with other data, often historical data, from disparate sources to provide operational visibility and to generate novel insights that can be acted upon by people or by automated systems.

IoT is a paradigm shift away from vertically integrated, standalone monitoring and alarm systems that silo data and that can only provide pre-programmed reports and alerts. While these legacy systems are limited to either 1:1 (one-to-one) or 1:N (one-to-many) communication pathways, IoT systems enable M:N (many-to-many) communications pathways that allow developers to reconfigure existing systems to create new IoT applications that were not previously conceived.

Sensor devices are composed of four key elements: sensors, processors, network interfaces, and power sources.

Sensors

Without sensors, there is no IoT data.

At a basic level, all IoT sensors generate analog electrical signals that are proportional to a physical property. Then, these analog signals are converted to digital data using ADCs (“Analog-to-Digital Converter”).

Sensors can measure simple electrical properties such as voltage, current, resistance, capacitance, inductance, and impedance. They can also measure the strength and direction of electric and magnetic fields, especially changing ones, across the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to light to gamma rays.

For sensors that measure non-electrical properties, a transducer converts physical properties into analog electrical signals.

Common physical properties are:

• Spatial parameters such as acceleration, velocity/speed, vibration, and displacement/position/deflection.
• Environmental properties such as temperature and humidity.
• Fluid dynamics of liquids or gases such as sound, pressure, and flow rates.

Sensors may be passive or active. Active sensors emit radio, light, or sound waves into the environment and detect reflections using a receiver that processes them into measurements. Although passive sensors do not emit waves into the environment, this does not imply that passive sensors are unpowered. In fact, many passive sensors generate electric or magnetic fields and detect changes to these fields as a sensing mechanism.

Advanced digital sensors such a GPS, radars, chemical detectors, gyroscopes, or digital cameras use multiple analog sensing elements to take measurements. Then, sophisticated algorithms translate these raw measurements into useful sensor data.

Processors

Once the sensor data is captured it must be processed before transmitting the results to the cloud. The level of processing varies greatly depending upon the complexity of the sensor and the amount of data processing required to generate the resultant sensor data. A simple example is a temperature reading may be a single data value or an average of a set of values over time. A more complex example is a security camera that may not record digital video unless a scene detection algorithm flags an event.

Based on the complexity and processing power required there are four classes of processing platforms for IoT hardware: PC, mobile systems, microprocessor (MPU) based embedded systems, and microcontroller (MCU) based embedded systems.

  PCs Mobile Embedded MPUs Embedded MCU
Processor x86 (32/64) bit Varies (32/64 bit) Varies (32/64 bit) Varies (8/32 bit)
Clock Speed / Cores GHz / Multi-core GHz / Multi-core Varies MHz / Single-core
Memory DRAM (GB) DRAM (GB) DRAM (MB/GB) SRAM (kB/MB)
Storage HDD / SSD (TB) SSD / SD Card (GB) HDD/SSD (GB), Flash (MB), SD Card (GB) NOR/NAND Flash (kB/MB)
Peripheral Bus USB, PCIe USB-OTG USB, TWI, I2C, SPI, USART, Proprietary TWI, I2C, SPI, USART
Avg System Cost $100s to $3,000 $100 to $1,000 Varies $5-$50
Networking Ethernet, WiFi™, Bluetooth™ WiFi™, Bluetooth™, NFC Varies Proprietary RF or BLE™
Graphics Integrated Graphics or Graphics Card Integrated Graphics Varies Simple text or char display
Cooling Active (Fans) Passive Active or Passive Not usually  required
Power Line powered (desktop)

Rechargeable Li-Ion battery (laptop)

Rechargeable Li-Ion battery Line powered Battery powered

PC Based Systems

The PC is the ultimately configurable platform that enables system integrators to create custom systems easily from inexpensive, widely available off-the-shelf motherboards, processors, memory, power supplies, and cases. Terabyte hard drives or SSDs (“Solid State Drive”) can provide large data storage capacities. Peripherals can be connected via modern standards-based USB (“Universal Serial Bus”) or PCIe (“Peripheral Component Interconnect Express”) buses, and there are still options to support legacy PC peripheral buses such as RS-232/RS-422/RS-485.

Furthermore, there are even expansion processor cards that include DSPs, FPGAs, GPUs, or high speed I/O to address the needs of specialized applications.

While PCs have an excellent price-to-performance ratio, they are based on consumer-grade technology which tends to have short life cycles and may not be suitable for applications outside of the office or home environments.

An alternative to PCs are SBCs (“Single Board Computer”) that are based on PC technology, but designed for embedded applications with robust, industrial components to provide reliable performance in harsh operating environments.

Because SBCs have higher grade components and the production volumes for SBCs are relatively low, they are more expensive than equivalent performance PC based hardware. However, they usually have long lifecycles that can span up to a decade

PC-based systems usually run Windows or Linux operating systems.

Mobile Systems

Mobile systems are a specialized subset of embedded systems that are optimized for tablets and smartphones which are battery-powered devices that require frequent charging. While these inherently personal devices provide high-performance processing capabilities, they also have advanced system power management capabilities that enable them to conserve energy which extends battery life.

Mobile systems typically have many integrated sensors including 1 or 2 digital cameras, a 3D accelerometer, a gyroscope, a touch sensor, a barometer, a proximity sensor, a magnetometer (compass), an ambient light sensor, and a GPS receiver.

Unfortunately, mobile systems have very limited expansion capabilities.

While Android-based systems may allow expansion through USB OTG (“On-The-Go”) devices, Apple based systems only permit approved 3rd party devices through the MFI (“Made-for-iPod”) licensing program.

Mobile systems have a relatively expensive price-to-performance ratio. They are personal devices based on consumer-grade technology with short lifecycles. They are limited to operation in indoor or mild outdoor environments, and they are also relatively fragile and susceptible to drop damage unless enclosed in a 3rd party ruggedized case.

Although there are a few other options, Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS are the most dominant software environments for mobile systems.

Microprocessor (MPU) Based Embedded Systems

MPU based embedded systems provide the widest possible range of performance and capability options that are optimized to address specific product requirements for consumer electronics, industrial controls, medical devices, automotive controls, communication systems, or other vertical market applications.

They are usually based on application specific ICs (“Integrated Circuits”) such as SoCs (“System-on-Chip”) or SIPs (“System-in-Package”) that have integrated chip-level cores that simplify the design effort and provide cost-optimized solutions for specific product niches.

MPU’s typically run general purpose, multi-tasking operating systems or RTOSs (“Real-Time Operating System”) that provide deterministic responses for control-based applications.

While most embedded systems are fully custom designed, some SoCs are available in SOM (“System-on-Module”) form factors with standardized mating connectors. SOMs enable developers to avoid the difficult and time-consuming work to design a custom embedded system from scratch. Instead, the designers can focus on designing carrier PCBs and on developing software to customize their product.

MPU based embedded systems can run Linux or a variety of other commercial RTOSs (“Real-Time Operating System”).

Microcontroller (MCU) Based Embedded Systems

MCU based embedded systems provide very low-cost solutions for applications with limited processing requirements.

However, some advanced microcontrollers embed specialized hardware modules to accelerate image processing or security functions such as cryptographic acceleration for public/private key exchange, hashing, and TRNG (“True Random Number Generation”).

MCU based systems can be very power efficient because they have fine-grained power control of the processor, peripherals, and clocks. With power optimized internal or external wake-up sources, it is possible to create very low power products that can last for many years without requiring a battery charge.

System software may be a simple run-loop plus interrupt handler or it may run a small footprint RTOS.

Network Interface

While some IoT hardware connects via physical networks such as Ethernet, it is much more common to connect to the Internet via wireless networks such as Wi-Fi™ or cellular.

Power vs Range vs Data Rate

The classic design tradeoffs for wireless communication systems are low power, long distance, or high data rate. (Pick two!)

Network Type Range Power Data Rate Licensed Frequencies
Wi-Fi™ (802.11a/b/g/n/ac/ax) Medium High High No 2.4/5 GHz
White-Fi / Super Wi-Fi (802.11af) Long Medium Medium No 54-698 MHz
HaLow (802.11ah) Long Medium Medium No 915 MHz
Bluetooth™ Short Medium Medium No 2.4 GHz
Bluetooth™ Low Energy (BLE) Short Low Low to Medium No 2.4 GHz
802.15.4 / ZigBee™ Medium Low Low No 2.4 GHz
Proprietary RF Varies Varies Varies No 868/915 MHz
LPWAN – SigFox™ Long Very Low Very Low No 868/915 MHz
LPWAN – LoRA™/Symphony Very Long Very Low Low No 433/868/915 MHz
LPWAN – Ingenu Medium to Long Low Low No 2.4 GHz
LPWAN – Weightless Long Low to Medium Low to Medium No 470-790 MHz
Cellular – 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G Long High High Yes 3GPP Regional Bands
Cellular – CAT-1M Long Low Low Yes 3GPP Regional Bands
Cellular – NB-IoT Long Very Low Very Low Yes 3GPP Regional Bands

 Licensed vs Unlicensed Bands

Governmental authorities regulate access to the electromagnetic spectrum. They may grant licenses to people or entities to operate wireless transmitters within a specified frequency band at a maximum power level within a certain geographic region.

Often a wireless network services provider that holds an exclusive frequency license, such as a cellular service provider, will provide access to its network to other users for a fee. In this case, the service provider is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the wireless network.

Access to certain frequency bands is available to users without a license if they use an approved wireless communication system that complies with the regulations necessary for unlicensed operation. These wireless communication systems must have intelligent coexistence mechanisms such as carrier sensing or frequency agility to compensate for in-band interference from other systems that operate concurrently within the same unlicensed bands.

Unlicensed networks, such as Wi-Fi™ networks, are usually operated and maintained by users at their own cost.

Power Source

The simplest power solution for IoT hardware is to use line power from the electric power grid.

However, many emerging IoT applications cannot use line power because it is not readily accessible in the deployment area and it would be prohibitively difficult or expensive to run additional power lines.

Energy Harvesting

For IoT hardware with low power requirements, novel energy harvesting technologies such as piezo-based vibrational, thermopiles, and hydrodynamic or wind turbines can be viable, but solar panels are still the most popular choice. Although it is technically possible to power IoT hardware directly from these energy sources, a better option is to store the energy for later use.

Energy Storage

While esoteric energy storage systems continue to evolve such as banks of supercapacitors or fuel cells, old, but reliable battery technologies are still the most popular energy storage choice for off-grid IoT hardware.

With a variety of chemistries and construction types, batteries offer a broad range of options for package sizes, energy capacities, voltage ranges, and current delivery capabilities. Some even offer specialized features that minimize self-discharge, support high pulse currents, operate at extreme temperatures or provide extended lifecycles of up to a decade or more.

Summary

As you can see, there are a plethora of sensor, processing, networking, and power supply technologies available to create IoT hardware to meet the technical performance requirements for applications in the healthcare, transportation, industrial, automotive, smart cities, and other niche IoT market segments.

The key is to combine the appropriate technologies that meet the essential technical performance requirements while satisfying the necessary business constraints to create a viable IoT solution.

6 Reasons to Use a Design and Manufacturing Services Partner

So you’ve finally decided to explore using an electronic design and manufacturing services partner to develop and build your product.

There are many reasons why this makes sense, but obviously, your product design will benefit from a manufacturing perspective during the design process.

1.  TECHNICAL EXPERTISE AND EXPERIENCE

Certainly the electronic design & manufacturing firm should have the requisite technical design and manufacturing experience to develop and build your product.

Although engineering discipline expertise such as electrical, mechanical, or software is important, it is not sufficient.

Relevant industry experience is vital, particularly for those products that require specific domain knowledge such as defense, aerospace, communications, or medical. Many of these products may have to meet stringent performance standards in harsh environments or they may have onerous regulatory or critical safety requirements.

Depending on your product’s complexity, the development process may require specialized instrumentation, software, simulation tools, or test and measurement equipment; the electronics design and manufacturing provider’s personnel should have the necessary experience. If not, you will be paying them to learn which is neither ideal nor cost-effective.

Some products may require dedicated facilities such as clean rooms for optical and medical devices or anechoic chambers for sophisticated RF systems. While it may be beneficial if the electronics design & manufacturing company has these facilities in-house, you may also be paying more to cover the additional overhead for these facilities instead of paying one-time fees at a local test lab.

If your product will have complex assemblies like those in electro-mechanical or robotic products, the electronic design and manufacturing firm’s assembly and test experience is essential to help you avoid quality issues, inflated costs, and unanticipated schedule delays during the introduction to the manufacturing process.

2.  MANUFACTURING MINDSET

Feedback during the design phase from the manufacturing team members in sourcing, supply chain, and test engineering reduces the risk of unanticipated issues and increases the likelihood of a seamless design transfer to manufacturing.

SOURCING & SUPPLY CHAIN

Because the BOM (“Bill-of-Material”) cost is usually a significant portion of the total product cost, the electronic design and manufacturing provider’s capabilities to effectively reduce these costs should be an important selection criterion.

Since electronic design & manufacturing companies purchase significant quantities of components and material from their suppliers daily, they have the flexibility to aggregate orders from all of their customers to obtain volume discounts and preferred pricing.

Furthermore, large electronics design and manufacturing firms have access to substantial financial credit facilities that enable them to purchase bulk quantities of parts and materials at best possible terms.

The firm’s design team should leverage this sourcing power to select optimal components for your product design based not only on cost, but also based on availability, lifecycle, and lead times.

TEST CONSIDERATIONS

Often product design teams do not develop production test plans until after the product design is already completed. However, a savvy electronics design and manufacturing provider will ensure that a comprehensive test strategy is developed concurrently with the product design. This approach results in a cost-effective test process with the best possible test coverage which greatly reduces the risk of uncovering issues during test process validation before the product is introduced to manufacturing.

3.  3RD PARTY SUPPLIERS

If the electronics design & manufacturing firm will be using 3rd party resources to design your product such as on-site contractors, remote developers, or external suppliers, there are several things to consider.

First, you should ensure that electronic design and manufacturing partner has substantially equivalent confidentiality agreements with its suppliers to protect your information.

Second, the more suppliers that your electronic design & manufacturing partner uses, the greater the risk of miscommunication among your partner, its suppliers, and you.

Third, assuming that the electronics design and manufacturing company selects its own suppliers, it should be solely responsible for their performance. This includes managing them, ensuring the quality of their work, and paying them. And, you should never be involved in any disputes between the company and its suppliers.

Ideally, choose an electronics design & manufacturing partner that can develop your product with the fewest 3rd party resources.

4.  LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Even though it is much easier today than in the past to do business internationally as well as virtually, the location of the electronic design and manufacturing firm is still an important consideration.

The smaller the geographic range you’re willing to consider, the fewer choices there will be. However, the further away from the electronic design and manufacturing company is from you, the greater the opportunity for potential problems to arise.

WHAT TIME IS IT OVER THERE?

It is unlikely that you will have any communication issues working with a local supplier since you are typically working the same business hours.

Even a couple of time zones difference is usually not a problem.

But as the distance to the electronics design and manufacturing provider increases, the window for daily communication narrows. For example, a provider that is located in a time zone that is 5 or 6 hours ahead or one that is halfway around the world will likely require you to attend early morning or late evening calls.

This situation hinders timely communication between teams that will inevitably contribute to a longer than expected development cycle since issues can’t be discussed until the end of one team’s day and the beginning of the other team’s day.

TRAVEL

Ideally, it would be great to have a local electronic design and manufacturing firm that was only a short car ride away. But, in most cases, this would greatly limit your options.

It’s worthwhile to estimate the anticipated travel costs in advance if you believe that you will need to make many trips to the electronic design and manufacturing company’s location during the product design and manufacturing phase.

If you choose a domestic electronic design & manufacturing company, your travel costs are limited to airfare, ground transportation, meals, and hotels. It’s fairly straightforward to control these costs using online booking services even when booked on relatively short notice.

However, if you choose a foreign electronics design and manufacturing provider, travel costs will likely be higher than for domestic travel. Additionally, intercontinental travel will exponentially increase your travel costs as well as the time investment required per trip.

Furthermore, you and your team members will need to have passports and possibly need to obtain visas. This situation can be further complicated if some members of your team are not citizens such as those with temporary visas, work permits, or permanent resident alien cards.

A final consideration is that unless the electronics design & manufacturing firm is local, it will likely to bill you for travel costs for its product design team members to travel to your location, especially if it requires them to stay overnight.

SHIPPING

While domestic shipping is relatively cost efficient if you can avoid overnight shipping, the cost of international shipping can vary widely based on the destinations, weight, and class of service.

If the package’s size and weight is relatively small, international air shipping can be a reasonable option. But, if the package’s size and weight is substantial, air freight can be prohibitively expensive. While ground or boat shipment will be more cost effective, you will have to plan for longer shipping times.

It is worth noting that incorrectly filled out customs forms may cause delays and unanticipated tariffs or duties can also substantially increase the effective international shipping costs.

Always ensure that the electronic design and manufacturing provider has experience managing international shipping to your location. Otherwise, you risk delays and unplanned costs.

LEGAL CONSIDERATIONS

If the electronic design & manufacturing company is organized in a foreign country, you may not have the same legal protections as you would domestically for contracts, warranties, liability, or intellectually property.

Even if the electronics design and manufacturing firm has a domestic subsidiary you may still be at risk. If the contractual liability resides with the domestic entity, you may have limited legal recourse when an issue arises if the domestic subsidiary doesn’t have the necessary assets or the appropriate and adequate insurance coverage to cover it.

Also, beware of a domestic electronics design & manufacturing provider who offers a “partnership” with an international supplier. These relationships are almost always just informal business agreements to cooperate without any mutual contractual obligations. So when business goes badly, neither party will take responsibility for the problems leaving you to sort them out for yourself.

The best advice if you’re considering an international electronic design and manufacturing company is to consult with a qualified attorney who has the necessary background and experience in international trade and intellectual property protection.

5.  COMPANY STABILITY

Potential customers often ask how long an electronic design & manufacturing firm has been in business. But, in the current business environment, longevity can no longer be a barometer for company stability.

FINANCIAL STRENGTH

Although often overlooked by potential customers, an electronics design and manufacturing provider’s financial condition is a critical factor to consider before committing your business.

If your electronics design & manufacturing partner is not financially strong, the negative impacts can be subtle such as shipping delays due to outstanding past due invoices from a key supplier, credit constraints based on banking covenants, or key personnel leaving, voluntarily or involuntarily, because of payroll cash flow issues.

You can be assured that a fiscally disciplined electronic design and manufacturing company will do some level of financial qualification on you as a new customer, especially if it will be offering you payment terms. You would be wise to do the same.

PERSONNEL TURNOVER

A key reason to select an electronic design & manufacturing firm is that you have access to a seasoned design team that has worked together for many years.

The stability of the design team is critical to the efficient development of your product. If there are many new people and the electronics design and manufacturing provider is not growing its business, this may be an indicator of a high rate of personnel turnover. However, if there are few new people, this may be a strong indication that you are working with a provider whose business is either stagnant or worse, contracting.

Neither extreme is an encouraging sign that your electronics design & manufacturing partner is stable. Search for a partner that has many long-term team members mixed with some new ones.

6.  INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY

Wouldn’t it be great if you could find an electronic design and manufacturing company that had previously designed a similar product?

While at first, this might seem appealing, there are two concerns that should be addressed.

First, you risk one-track thinking by the electronic design & manufacturing firm’s design team that will highly leverage a previous design to reduce the amount of development time and work. Although this approach may reduce development costs and time, it may result in your product design being only slightly adapted for your requirements instead of being optimized for them.

Second, depending on the agreement under which the previous product was developed, there may be IP (“Intellectual Property”) entanglements including joint ownership, 3rd party licensing terms, and other business restrictions that could potentially limit your future product plans.  Additionally, there is a risk of unintentional infringement unless the firm has well-defined processes in place to ensure that people and documentation are segregated among the competitors’ projects.

Lastly, you need an electronics design and manufacturing partner who is trustworthy, who will honor confidentially agreements, and who will not share your product design details with any 3rd parties.

FINAL THOUGHTS

While the list of considerations stated above is not exhaustive, it will help you evaluate potential electronics design & manufacturing companies based not only on their stated capabilities but also based on key attributes that could impact their ability to successfully design and build your product.

Always remember that working with a good electronic design and manufacturing partner should free up your time and resources to allow you focus on core business processes to grow your business

Beyond Design and NPI: Lifecycle Visibility Yields Cost-Savings for Medical Device OEMs

Stethoscope Laying on Stacks of Hundred Dollar Bills with Narrow Depth of Field.

In the medical device industry, there can sometimes be a disconnect in both the priorities and collaborative communication between design engineering and manufacturing operations teams.

This disconnect can be significant to a medical device OEM’s bottom line, especially when time to market is delayed and unnecessary supply chain costs accumulate quickly.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work in both the product design and electronics manufacturing world. I recently had the chance to speak with Editor in Chief of PlasticsToday, Norbert Sparrow, about medical device design strategies that I’ve seen make things much easier for development and commercialization teams, including:

  • Front-loading design work through ‘hobbyist’ platforms
  • Having a structured process in place when working with regulated industries
  • Gaining a thorough understanding of the manufacturing process including supply chain

I’ll be talking more about this at the BIOMEDevice exhibition and conference in Boston on April 14th.

I’d love to hear your ideas to make the commercialization process easier for all involved, and hope to see you there!

 

Read the full PlasticsToday Article

 

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