The Changing Role of OEM Product Development Engineering Teams Print E-mail
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Written by Duane Benson   
Saturday, 31 January 2009 19:00
Chinese

Downsizing could put staff in unfamiliar roles. Here’s how to cope.

Fig. 1

It is no secret OEM engineering teams are being asked to do more with less on a regular basis. At Screaming Circuits, we’ve seen this trend precede the current economic downturn. In some companies this is a planned transition from internal to outsourced resources, but in others this is a reactionary process driven by top-down budget cuts. The result is that both product development teams and their suppliers are seeing changes in the way they collaborate. Sometimes this is a focused process; other times it is reactionary. Here we look at the types of changes likely to be driven by product development team downsizing and areas where a focused supply base can help fill in the gaps.

In a recent survey, Screaming Circuits asked its customer base to list the most difficult challenge in getting prototypes built.

The top responses were:

  • Sourcing components (35%).
  • Coordinating the overall process (21%).
  • Getting PCBs fabricated (14%).
  • Placing the order (10%).
  • Waiting for the finished prototypes (10%).
  • Creating the file set (7%).

Often the biggest challenge is the support staff is first to go. This can leave engineers saddled with mundane administrative tasks they neither enjoy, nor have adequate training to perform. In some cases, an engineer who spent most of their professional life working around the system to design on tight deadlines suddenly must work with internal support groups, such as purchasing, whose systems are focused to work with the longer timelines and lot sizes associated with sustaining production projects. Either way, the learning curve issues can cause a two-week process to slip to a two-month process.
Two additional trends challenge design teams. Many applications are becoming technologically more complex and are driving engineering skills convergence. Engineers who trained in specific disciplines now need to broaden their skills base to support the requirements of embedded systems or mixed signal applications. Second, economic downturns drive tighter design cycles. Engineers are challenged to get products to market in record time.

How can the relationship be effectively restructured within a downsized engineering team? Key areas of support needed to drive an efficient prototype build can include:

  • Ability to provide feedback on potential manufacturability and testability issues during layout.
  • Ability to source components quickly and document choices in ways that can drive an approved vendor list once the product is finalized.
  • Ability to support technology trends driven by miniaturization and lower power consumption requirements, such as the hardware and software expertise required by embedded systems or the analog/digital expertise required in mixed signal technology.
  • Ability to manage key vendors’ efficiency to achieve quality, cost and schedule goals.
  • Ability to provide flexible support in a structured environment.

Fig. 2

Much of this support is available within a disciplined prototype supplier. The key is determining how to best leverage supplier expertise and infrastructure to fill the gaps in the downsized team. The following are areas to consider:

Structured quickturn process. High quality, quickturn prototyping firms stay in business because of their ability to add structure to chaos without losing time. There may be white papers, blogs or other informational resources that can help you align internal processes more closely with the chosen supplier’s preferred best practices. In some cases, a prototype house may be able to transform a loose file set into a documentation package acceptable for a prototype build, which helps reduce internal engineering team workload.

DfM/DfT and general layout advice. What’s bleeding-edge technology for you may be standard practice for your prototype supplier. There may be informational resources, design guidelines or a helpline to assist with component footprints not in your CAD library, best layout options for odd form components or other issues that can be tapped to speed your layout process. PCB fabricator Sunstone Circuits, for instance, offers PCB123, a schematic and PWB layout CAD system that has built-in design rules; they provide design rule add-ins for many popular CAD systems.

Procurement. Another recent Screaming Circuit survey found that engineers could spend as much as two days in the design cycle simply ordering components for a prototype run. Comparatively, a quickturn prototype house that offers both consigned and turnkey options will have dedicated staff and a qualified supply base in place to support component procurement.

Engineering support for complex product requirements. Good prototype houses aren’t simply board stuffers. They often become integral links in their customer’s product realization cycles. When mixed signal technology or embedded processors are part of the equation, the difference between receiving prototypes and working prototypes can be a prototype supplier’s in-house engineering expertise. When filling gaps, consider the availability of on-call engineering resources at the chosen supplier. In some cases, this engineering focus may also extend further into the supply base. For example, we worked with Sunstone Circuits to improve procedures in its bare board electrical test process to fit within the parameters of our quickturn environment. Their strategic partnership includes focused continuous improvement efforts, which benefit both companies and the respective customer bases.

In selecting a prototype supplier, consider the following questions:

  • What gaps do I need to fill and how will this supplier align with these needs?
  • What is this supplier’s experience with projects of similar size, technology and time constraints?
  • How flexible are this supplier’s documentation requirements?
  • How easy is the ordering process, and does it fit within the project’s time constraints?
  • What types of informational resources are available to help understand the supplier’s areas of expertise?
  • Can I set up processes that will simplify continuing support for future projects and save my company time and money?

Good prototype suppliers can work seamlessly with downsized engineering teams. Upfront analysis of needed support services and a willingness to listen to the prototype house’s recommendations can eliminate non-value added activity and ensure project timelines are met.

Duane Benson is marketing manager at Screaming Circuits (screamingcircuits.com); This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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