Martin Keenan, Head of Applications Strategy at RS Components
Engineers want to innovate and develop new ways of doing things, but more often than not they will come up against some formidable barriers. There are multiple and ever-increasing challenges for engineers in today’s product development environment. One major issue is keeping skills up to date and keeping up with the latest technology developments. This is especially the case with engineers increasingly expected to have a broad set of skills, as the industry is seeing shrinking design teams with fewer engineering specialists that have know-how in power or analog design, for example.
Another issue is the increasing volume of projects being thrown at design teams today. Arguably though, if there is one design pressure above any other in today’s highly competitive environment, it is time-to-market. Design teams are facing growing pressure to bring products to market that offer better performance with ever-increasing functionality and differentiation, usually meaning significantly increased complexity, and in ever-shorter design timeframes. Related to this is the overall cost of a project. While material costs are always important, the component bill of materials (BOM) is becoming much less of an issue compared to the overall cost involved in hardware and software development over the design cycle.
However, to help meet these challenges, there is a perceptible change in the traditional design approach in many engineering companies today. This change relies on the open source movement, new design tools and resources, and the rapid prototyping of hardware.
Traditional design flow
In the traditional design flow, before design work can actually begin, product specifications will need to be collected from multiple sources, including internal departments such as sales and marketing, as well as key customers. In addition to the research into the necessary technologies to meet the specifications, research will need to be done into the viability of a product to see if it will meet the demands of the market, and, moreover, what will be required to ensure success in a highly competitive marketplace. Documentation is a key element: product functionality needs to be described, along with minimum acceptance specifications, together with the assembly of data on market potential, target customers and expected return-on-investment. And once design work actually begins, documentation is key to ensure the design process is kept on track to meet a very specific end point.
There are many pitfalls with this traditional approach. Gathering requirements can be a long process and there are limited opportunities for engineers to innovate outside of these specifications. In addition, typically it is only a subset of the engineering team that is involved in the requirements gathering process, meaning the under employment of the collective experience of the wider team. And limited time available in the development cycle will often lead to a heavy reliance on previous product designs, as the market need may have moved on or even been filled by a competitor by the time the product is actually available.
An agile approach
Increasingly though, the industry is undergoing a transformation in the approach to product design. The ‘Rapid Concept and Prototyping’ approach can enable significantly lighter up-front requirements: the end goal can be considerably looser with ‘must-have’ functionality identified at a much higher level, allowing entire engineering departments to be involved in brainstorming. Multiple concepts can be created digitally and developed in parallel with the strongest concepts progressed and the weakest quickly abandoned in an evolutionary and iterative process. Physical prototypes can be produced, quickly followed by customer and market testing, with a small number of prototypes taken on through the full design process.
Advantages to this agile approach include: the ability to rapidly react to market demands; the encouragement of innovation, which is inherent in the process; reduced time-to-market; the empowerment of engineers across entire departments; and the building of a base of experience, whether or not a potential concept is actually realised.
However, this new approach to product development is only beneficial if engineers are empowered to be a part of the concept process, which has been difficult to implement in the past. But there have been three key enablers that make this agile approach more than just a possibility, but a very real alternative.
The first element is open-source material. The increasing availability of open-source hardware and software, including hardware-proven reference designs and software protocol stacks from semiconductor vendors and other manufacturers, is providing engineers with a valuable head start, enabling them to quickly try concepts without the need to start from a blank piece of paper. In addition, platforms such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi are also allowing smaller companies to quickly create products and systems based on these modular building blocks.
The second element is the growing availability of free design software, spearheaded by launch of DesignSpark PCB, which is powerful, easy-to-use, with no restrictions and no annual license fee. The tool has removed the bottleneck of having to use specialist PCB layout engineers (typically using premium PCB software such as OrCAD, PADs or Altium). The availability of free PCB-design software now allows all engineers to rapidly design new concepts. In fact, many manufacturers are now choosing to employ DesignSpark PCB as the software to promote their reference designs to the widest audience.
An additional component is the creation of mechanical concepts and designs. Creating rapid mechanical concepts has always been a major bottleneck to enabling truly agile design, as traditional 3D CAD tools have been the domain of the trained CAD specialists and cost many thousands of dollars/euros with annual subscriptions. Therefore, the general engineering community has been unable to engage with 3D design. However, in September 2013, DesignSpark Mechanical was launched, free of charge and based on direct modelling techniques that allow non-CAD specialists to conceptualize products in 3D. Now, more than 100,000 engineers across the globe have already integrated DesignSpark Mechanical into their design processes.
The final element is increasingly rapid prototyping. One valuable resource is the availability of PCB board manufacturers that can deliver prototype boards in a matter of days and at relatively low cost. Another resource is increasing access to 3D printers, which are now gaining significant momentum and are having a dramatic impact on the ability to rapidly produce prototypes and realize mechanical design concepts.
Democratizing concept to creation
In summary, increased design resources from suppliers, open source platforms and materials, the availability of free PCB-design and 3D-design tools, and rapid prototyping capabilities such as the use of 3D printers, have all combined to enable a new agile approach that democratizes the design process, opens up a significant opportunity for increased innovation, and enables engineers to achieve concept to creation in a substantially faster time.