A recent survey from Technology Forecasters, Inc. and TFI Supply Chain -- and sponsored by element14 -- outlines the commonly-found "pains" of working in electronics design. Toward the end of the survey titled, Design-with-Efficiency: Toward a Streamlined Process for Electronics-Industry Design Engineers, the authors try to push forward their vision of how the field could become remarkably more efficient and easy-to-use with some large, but not impossible, changes. We decided to take a deep look into the survey results ourselves, make our own opinion based on the data, and expand upon the authors' own predictions and hopes for the electronics design community.
The first part of this article will outline the numerous "pains" of being in electronics design, while the second part will try to argue a more comprehensive plan for how the industry can move forward in the coming years.
Much of the electronics design process is conducting research and collecting data on all the possible components that might be incorporated into a final product. This procedure, however, is not exactly simple or efficient. According to the survey, design engineers found the initial design stages -- before prototyping -- take the most time to complete, and there's almost never enough time to gather all the data they would like. Inaccurate information is prevalent, and dealing with lackluster customers can make an otherwise simple design nearly impossible.
The survey authors broke down the electronics design process into four parts: concept development, detailed design, prototype testing and evaluation, and pre-production. First, they asked how much time engineers devote in each stage toward finding and aggregating information, data, and tools. Second, they asked their respondents to apply a difficulty degree to that part of the overall process, with 1 being easy, and 5 being difficult. The results can be seen below.
Clearly, the first two stages are not only the most difficult, but also require the largest amount of time to complete. The survey's authors say that accompanying phone interviews "showed an even greater disparity between the first two and last two stages," showing that the ever-increasing complexity of electronics design is continuing to weigh down on early planning for new products. Many engineers cited "information overload" as a major concern, combined with the complexity of dealing with the constant influx of new technology. Engineers in contract manufacturing or consulting firms find that customers often do not have a clear picture of their needs in the initial stages of the design process, which leads to changes down the road, or a final product that does not completely meet the desired specifications.
In order to belay some of the difficulty in the previously-mentioned processes, design engineers work hard to collect enough sources for the data they might need on any given project. The ubiquity of these resources, however, often does not mitigate the difficulty much, if at all. There are reference designs, technical papers, specification and data sheets, development tools, and more, but none of these sources are enough for any given design project, and some are easier than others to aggregate.
The survey authors note that "top-level information about component characteristics and performance is generally available online -- but detailed ... information and tools can be difficult to locate." Many electronics engineers, regardless of age or field, have a great deal of difficulty in moving from the basic planning stage to picking the correct components to the article they want to design. Fortunately, a number of resources are available for engineers to get this data, but they have their own problems.
The survey lists discussion forums, blogs, and engineering communities as possible resources for data, beyond a general search, which has its own threats. Searching for a component on Google can lead to wildly incorrect data, which could set back design, force an engineer to restart from scratch, or, if the flawed piece reaches production, trigger a recall. With social media spreading like wildfire, design engineers are also looking for ways to get more -- and better -- data online.
Clearly, a good portion of the community is using these online resources for additional data on potential components for their product. They do, however, carry a number of risks, which the survey addressed. The reliability of the information found online is the greatest concern, followed by the difficulty in finding information relevant to the engineer's current interest. Nearly as many respondents cited the expertise of other online participants -- those who create the data -- as a concern, followed by the possibility of intellectual property leaks.
Each online data source has its own issues alongside with its advantages, and none are particularly poised to become the go-to source for design engineers in the future. Using Google will often result in all the data one needs, but the process is time-consuming, and there may be instances where findings are inaccurate. Manufacturer/distributor websites will provide accurate details, but there is no standard for how this data is represented, forcing engineers to scour each cite for small bits of necessary details. In addition, these portals are built for the purpose of selling parts, which can get in the way of collecting honest and reliable data.
The survey authors offered a few selections as to what kind of resource could be possible, and would make these engineers' lives easier, but more effort must be put forth on both sides to see some real change in the market. Clearly, engineers are feeling these "pains," and will continue to do so in the near future. From the experience of Manufacturing.net's editors, the information they seek -- spec sheets, safety information, and more -- is readily accessible. Component makers are willing to give up the necessary specification data if an engineer requests it, and there already exist databases like GlobalSpec to find solutions to a given design.
We think the main issue this survey shows, when combined with the real-world scenarios we've seen, is that there exists a large disconnect between what the design engineers want and what suppliers understand they want. This survey, outlining the various pains these engineers undertake in their day-to-day tasks, is a good start, but more direction is needed. The respondents to this survey shouldn't be shy in asking for more detailed data from their suppliers. These companies want to make a sale and please their customers, so more often than not they will take the extra step so engineer's don't have to.
First, design engineers should be more vocal about their concerns. They shouldn't think that their opinions don't matter, or that it's just the status quo. Suppliers would be more likely to thank a customer for voicing these criticisms than defend itself, as each step toward creating a better service almost always leads to more sales. With this in mind, engineers should get out of the mindset that these "pains" are inevitable and that perhaps -- if they're lucky -- the market will refocus enough to help alleviate the stress. That's simply not going to happen, and the process starts with being up-front about their concerns.
In an age where social media is integrated into almost every facet of business, this could be a good starting point for design engineers. In the consumer world, people often vent about a company on Twitter or Facebook, and that can often lead to better customer service. I'm not saying every engineer should log on and trash-talk their suppliers, but it could be a starting point for a more constructive talk about what the engineer needs, and what the supplier actually provides. These companies do want to get better, despite the thoughts and assumptions seen in the survey results.
Suppliers aren't exactly exempt from taking blame in the issue of "pain," however -- they could be doing much more to streamline the data collection and research phases of electronics design. One of the concerns that many design engineers cited in the survey is that objective data -- a component's heat tolerance, for example -- can be corrupted by the supplier's desire to make a sale. Engineers don't like to be bombarded with sales pitches as they're doing research, and they think the "buy-me" formatting of this data can undermine credibility. To combat this, suppliers should supply more easily-accessible data that is separate from the sales component of their websites, allowing engineers to browse with ease.
Component manufacturers should also be looking into better ways to make their information more accessible. Any engineer can get their hands on what they need, given an infinite amount of time, but it's often deadlines that make the search seem more difficult than it really is. Streamlining a website is one solution, but it doesn't solve the problem of engineers having to scour the entire internet for the data they need.
Manufacturers could think more like smartphone manufacturers, for example. Companies like Samsung, HTC, and Apple gush over the specifications of their devices whenever they announce a new product -- they couldn't be happier to have the innermost details out for the public to see. This transparency provides support for their marketing campaigns (most powerful, most beautiful, etc., at least for the time being) and helps push the industry further along.
We think that this survey is a great start in addressing the long-standing difficulty some engineers have felt in the research of electronic components. It should help bridge that gap between what engineers want and what suppliers are hearing. Right now, suppliers feel as though they have the upper hand -- there will always be more projects and more engineers seeking out their products. Engineers, on the other hand, are suffering from symptoms akin to a migraine, and they have two choices: wait it out on their backs, eyes closed, hoping the pain will subside sooner than later, or they can be more proactive. We hope they choose the latter.
More information, as well as the full version of the study by element14 can be found at www.element14.com.