Custom Design - Why Would You Not Outsource?

By: Derek Carpenter
Managing Director
Datasound Laboratories

In-house design – not the brightest idea

Why should OEMs persist in doing design work in-house? From an engineering perspective it could perhaps be argued that only that OEM understands the particular requirements and technicalities, and a management perception might well be that the in-house route would be an effective use of their engineering resource during the workload troughs between other activities.

However, whilst these engineers should excel within areas of their own core competence, they may well have only undertaken one or two processor board designs before, possibly none at all. The relationships with chipset suppliers just won’t be there which in turn can mean the required technical support is hard to come by.

Also, the infrequency of design means that the company cannot really justify the investment in the latest design tools, and component selection is often restricted to the limits of the engineer's processor awareness and trade offs through BIOS cost and availability. As more and more new manufacturers are sought for the different manufacturing technologies the risk of failure increases. Even if manufacturability issues were addressed at the design stage, the product may still ultimately perform unreliably over the course of the product lifecycle.

Invariably projects like these overrun, as the engineer struggles with inferior tools on custom design work they are not familiar with, all the while trying to cope with the daily interruptions caused by their regular work.

Specialist skills for a specialist job

Given these risks, why would an OEM choose to keep its custom board design in-house? A specialist design house uses the latest tools and has proven development processes that drive down risk to a level that ensures clients have a working pre-production prototype at the first attempt.

The frequency of design projects means that clients are presented with pre-constructed, pre-proven schematic and layout building blocks, which in themselves significantly reduce the development cycle and time to market.

The very nature of a specialist means there are strong relationships in place with chip manufacturers. These provide tailored levels of support, access to technical staff and a greater vision of product road maps usually only reserved for accredited design partners.

Collaborative outsourcing

However for a project to succeed it is vital that it is a true collaboration between OEM and design house. OEMs have their own areas of core competence and the combination of this and a specialist design house’s expertise will result in the optimal solution.

A good design house should act as an extension of the client engineering department, building relationships at both management and engineering level to ensure that the product’s technical and commercial needs are fully met.

A typical, successful process will start at the enquiry stage where the OEM meets with design house managers to formulate an outline requirement covering issues such as functionality, mechanical requirements, performance, time scales and pricing. At this stage the viability of the design is discussed and any obvious areas of conflicting requirements are resolved.

Issues such as special contractual requirements, design for manufacture, design for test, EMC, projected volumes, post design support and manufacturing would also be discussed, resolved and referenced to at specification stage.

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