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How to contract electronic design work

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article image Contract design firms can help smooth the road from concept to commercialisation in product development.
Manufacturers looking to progress a product from a simple idea to commercialisation can face a daunting task, especially when they lack the required engineering expertise.

Contract design firms can help smooth the road from concept to commercialisation, but as with any form of outsourcing, the opportunities also come with some potential pitfalls.

Electronics News talked to three electronics design contract firms, Successful Endeavours, LX Design House and RTD Circuit Design for their perspective on how companies utilising their services can maximise their value for money, and perhaps revolutionise their product in the process.
What they do
Taking an idea from concept to production requires a special set of design and engineering skills that are usually in short supply. Ray Keefe, owner and managing director of Melbourne-based Successful Endeavours says that many clients don’t even know how to put a product specification together anymore.

According to Andrew Pollock of the Surface Mount & Circuit Board Association (SMCBA), there are between 150 and 200 electronics design engineering companies in Australian industry with around 30% being small contract operations. The rest of the country’s design engineers are employed by larger organisations such as BAE, Cochlear, Black Magic Design and CSIRO. A lot of development work has also moved overseas.
The migration of in-house engineering and product development expertise, especially from the SME segment has left gaps that electronic design contractors now attempt to fill. The type of clients seeking contract design services can vary in size, capability and work requirements.
Depending on how far along they are in the product development process, clients may subcontract part or the whole of the design development process from product specification to engineering analysis, schematic design, PCB layout, prototyping, software development, and post production support and revision.

Outsourcing, while common is not the only way contractors get involved with projects. According to Keefe, around a third of his company’s clients ask the contractor to augment the client’s existing design teams to provide speciality skills. Successful Endeavours, for instance provides analogue design, low power design and embedded software.

Simon Blyth, director of LX Design House says that his company goes on site for some clients as a resource to help them complete the project by providing a specialised skill set.
The quote
First-time clients consider the quote as an important part of the process, picking and choosing design contractors according to price.

Rob Leslie, manager of RTD Circuit Design focuses on PCB layout services with the company also providing consulting on component selection and product manufacturability. Leslie uses a spreadsheet to work out the amount of man hours a project will take based on the level of difficulty, specifications and constraints, which he then multiplies with the hourly rate.

Successful Endeavours offers hourly rates as an option, but derives 80% of its business from a ‘fixed price for fixed deliverables’ model. Larger projects are usually broken up into phases, with the client buying one phase at a time, and estimated costs reviewed between phases.

Crystal clear
When projects are outsourced, it is important for the client and the contractor to be on the same page in terms of expectations and deliverables.
LX Design House, for example has a formal specification procedure wherein a separate document called an acceptance test criteria based on the specification of a proposed product is drawn up. This document clearly explains how the resulting product will be tested to ensure the objectives have been met. It is critical for a client to read, understand and agree to this document, as it will largely determine the final performance and function of their product. A change request is made in the event the client requires new test criteria.

Successful Endeavours applies a similar approach with the specificity of the design work clearly demarcated according to stages, starting with the general user requirements progressing to product requirements and engineering requirements, which guide the design team to the specific outcomes. Any requests are documented and returned to the client for confirmation, and quotes are always accompanied with a clearly defined description of the work involved and the expected outcomes.

All three contract design firms contacted by Electronics News emphasised the importance of regular face-to-face meetings, telephone calls, emails and other forms of communication during the day-to-day workings of projects to ensure both sides were fully aware of the progress of the work.

First to market
All three companies have methodologies in place to accelerate the product development process.

For example, RTD Circuit Design utilises a quick circuit milling machine to engage in a rapid prototyping process, which is useful if the customer stipulates the use of a pre-manufactured enclosure without providing schematics.

LX Design House adopts an accelerated approach for clients who have a lower budget and prefer less documentation. Blyth explains that they can take the general needs of the client and deliver design solutions quickly with a low document approach. The client can then spell out what they do and don’t like, following which LX Design House provides a new quote for the changes.

Getting the product into the customers’ hands during the development process is an effective way to short circuit issues that might come up later. While Successful Endeavours may modify a spare piece of hardware to create an early prototype, the same approach also applies to the software functionality of the product.

According to Keefe, with the proliferation of low-power, high throughput processing chips, software has become a very important part of product development, with many functionalities moving from being hardware-based to being embedded in software.

Keefe says his firm uses PCs to create and run a complete emulation of the system, utilising high-level language to build a ‘shell’ on which the firmware or embedded software can run. Clients can then run development versions of the on-chip software on their computers and test for functionality.
Trend savvy
Contract designers, because of their exposure to a wide variety of projects have a good idea about the latest technologies and capabilities on the market. Clients therefore should have an open mind to new ideas suggested by the contract design engineers to make the final product better, or reduce the cost of development. 

One way to reduce the cost of the final product is to have a modern user interface. Keefe says that they encourage clients to move towards LCD-based interfaces with soft menus because they make it easier to give the user more information about the selections, while also being more flexible to upgrade in future.

Contract designers are also privy to other trends that can help improve the design of products. For example, devices are increasingly being designed with self-test features, which can reduce production line costs. Additionally, design contractors like LX Design House are seeing a shift from standalone devices to platforms, which can be adapted to different functions.

Blyth emphasised the importance for design contractors to proactively invest in keeping up with changes, which not only helps with value addition, but can be a serious advantage when pitching for projects.

Transition to manufacturing
Design contractors place a lot of focus on manufacturability since any successful product development cycle ultimately culminates in the manufacture of the device. Fortunately, new manufacturing capabilities and technologies such as 3D visualisation and increased machine precision have simplified the designer’s job.

Like other design houses, Successful Endeavours employs a few basic and conservative design rules to accelerate and enhance an initial design including working with larger track-to-track clearances and ground plane-to-track clearances. While Keefe is knowledgeable about the capabilities of a number of different equipment manufacturers, he will consult with specific firms about design rules to suit their production processes.

Once manufacturability has been covered, testing and certification needs to be agreed upon, which LX Design House’s Simon Blyth likens to insurance for the product. Testing is a three-stage process, starting with firmware, followed by standards and certifications, and finally environmental testing. As product tests can be costly, testing usually takes place when the development process is at the material prototype stage, with few or no design changes remaining.
Product development requires constant communication and expertise, making a strong case for keeping the work with local contractors, even though off-shoring the work to design firms in regions such as Asia may offer pricing advantages.

Australian contract designers have done enough rescue work for botched jobs to know that problems including fraud, delays or non-functional final products can be expensive in lost opportunities, far outweighing the initial price advantage.

Off-shoring is not entirely ruled out by local design companies such as LX Design House who focus on ensuring the client gets the best outcome, even from an overseas design house. Blyth however, advises clients looking to offshore to engage a local design house to help them manage the process.

At the end of the day, effective communication and accountability are essential to successful development, whether it’s done in-house, outsourced, or off-shored.

But choosing the right contract electronics design engineer with the expertise and experience could be the difference between an ordinary product as originally specified, and a value-added, differentiated result that makes a serious impact in the market.

LX Group  is an innovative contract electronics design company specialising in embedded systems and wireless technology.

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