Mike Buetow

There’s only so much a company can give away without extracting payment of some kind. Perhaps the world’s biggest provider of free stuff, Google, “gives away” its search tools, but in exchange users are offered less than democratic responses whereby the highest ranked terms are paid for. And in fact, the cost of “free” search is underwritten by copious amounts of advertising.

If you aren’t paying for it, someone else likely is. In this Era of Startups, many newly formed companies are turning to free offerings, with questionable returns.

There are clear reasons for doing so. Most obvious is cost. With startups so often undercapitalized, it is understandable, if not rational, that they would scrimp on software. Another is simplicity. For engineers not fluent in tool use, learning a professional CAD suite would seem daunting, not to mention time-consuming.

The rub comes when it’s time to actually build the prototypes. And the rub becomes an open wound when luck smiles to the point where the startup has to scale up.

Last month a pair of the major EDA companies pushed back against the freeware. EMA Design Automation, the North American distributor of Cadence OrCad, and Zuken announced promotions whereby their schematic capture tools would be offered free, under certain terms. In Zuken’s case, the deal is a free download of the Cadstar Schematics design tool until Mar. 31. EMA’s terms are more generous: a perpetual license of Cadence OrCAD Capture software for free with a one-year maintenance plan.

In speaking with EMA president Manny Marcano, the reasoning is clear: Too many startups are relying on tools that don’t support future needs.

EMS companies agree. Patrick Davis, senior vice president of RocketEMS and cofounder of the late Millennium Design, says if he could give all startups one piece of advice, it would it be to “get your tools figured out in the very beginning. And don’t use the free stuff. It will (break) you.”

A hardware startup, of course, is not thinking about design software. Engineers are typically worried getting the widget to work and finding a market for it before the cash runs out.

RocketEMS knows that cycle all too well; it has nearly 200 customers that would fall into the startup category. As such, the firm took the novel step of forming its own incubator, with a big assist from EMA. Called Launch, the incubator fills what RocketEMS sees as a big gap between what startups do well – and what they don’t. Launch, Davis says, allows engineers to concentrate on engineering while offloading the mundane work such as parts creation and BoM development.

“Engineers working on three hours’ sleep and four pots of coffee make mistakes,” he notes. “As an EMS, how do we protect them from themselves?”

Launch leverages the Amazon Cloud database. Through a partnership with EMA, clients use OrCAD Capture CIS for schematic entry and component data. The data are linked to RocketEMS’s database, which ensures data submitted to RocketEMS are accurate. “When they finish the product, they push a button and the BoM and parts are all correct,” says Davis.

There's a new Gold Rush on to capture orders from IoT businesses. Beyond that, however, there’s a lot to this idea for EMS companies to consider, particularly ones with existing design groups.

First, there is ensuring information flows smoothly and the EMS can help the OEM scale. As Davis points out, the tools themselves are instrumental: “The free tools on the Web are good to get an idea down, but in terms of a workstation quality tool to fold in with the downstream processing, they aren’t.”

Second, RocketEMS, like many smaller EMS companies serving startups, are taking on small customers launched from the bowels of Apple and Google, engineers bred on ample product design and development support. Faced with doing their own symbol and part creation, 3D modeling and BoM development, they often are stymied.

In a company of 200 employees, RocketEMS has 11 designers, whom Davis describes as a mix of “a bunch of young guys with EE and engineering degrees, and senior gray-haired guys like me.” In making CAD tools readily available to his clients, Davis is breaking new ground in terms of cementing the relationship between customer and manufacturer, and raising the profile of the board designer in the process.

“Designers are treated like a commodity,” he says. “I’m trying to change that by having EEs who can give constructive criticism. They help the (customer's) engineer. They answer the ‘what do you think?’ questions.

“I can also show customers where they are going to fail. I show them the DfM coming out of the free tools. By the time they reach that point, they usually realize how bad it is.” And that’s when the inevitable switch to desktop tools comes.

Given the deals available today, why wait? You might not be paying for freeware upfront, but in the not-so-long run, directly or indirectly, you probably will.

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