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— By Srinivasa Moorthy

In my career, I have developed many products ranging from Telecom to Avionics and all of them have been manufactured successfully. However, in the last few years of my interactions with Startups and SMEs, I see none of them really know what it takes to manufacture and sometimes what it takes to design a reliable product.
Having been involved in helping a dozen startups involved in HW design and manufacturing I see most of them failing when they go the market first (most of them come to me after they are hit by the first failure). A common problem I see is that they rushed to the market because the first customer wanted a trial or first revenue opportunity but the design was not ready for real-life deployment.
The products get into all kinds of problems once deployed and customer is disillusioned due to issues. having worked with them, some of the problems I noticed was converging to lack of product engineering. When they take their product to an EMS vendors (most of the times these vendors are basically an assembly house with a purchase dept. called as Supply Chain!!!) product engineering is totally missing. What I call by engineering is designing your PCBs with proper DFx Inputs, Having a Manufacturing Tester and Test Strategy in place along with Calibration. To top it all improper release mechanism of SW & HW versions adds complexity to the existing problems.
I summarise here a set of issues which need to be addressed if the product has to succeed in the market in its initial release.
  • Hire a consultant for a specific task. I see most so-called manufacturing consultants have no exposure to Engineering and Design will help only Manufacturing which is of no use.
  • Do a design analysis and ensure that the corner cases are addressed by your design. All components are not identical and component manufacturers specify the tolerance limits and your design should be able to work on the extremes of these limits
  • With the increased “IoT” startups and SMEs most of the hardware measures some parameters. However, I have not seen one design which builds Calibration against a standard for measurement and also calibration through software rather than using hardware-based calibration. Calibration of a product is also an involved process and need a proper procedure. Recently I was looking at a product which measures AC Mains current, voltage and Ambient Temperature. The process automation done by the software was based on these readings. However, when the actual design was reviewed it had no way to calibrate and components tolerances themselves were adding to an error leading to overall errors. In fact, the redesign took 3 more months and lots of effort to correct
  • Don’t get dictated by the manufacturing/assembly house. You lay out what you want and they just do what you want. The manufacturing process can also impact your design (few examples – bad components handling during placement, improper Reflow Profile, etc.) and you need to understand what happens in the manufacturing line to be in control
  • Finally, the most worrying thing is the use of RF for communication and I see all kinds of RF protocols and frequencies like WiFI, LoRa, WLOWPAN, Bluetooth LE, etc. being used. But most designers just believe that the modules or the devices they use will work the way the specification sheet describes. First thing in HW is, RF has its own mind and a fairly good understanding of RF is needed if you want your requirements to be met. Second, RF signals are dependent on the environment they work in
  • If you install the product with lots of greenery around, chances are there that you will see below par performance. Every RF circuit needs a matched Antenna just using a universal antenna is not going to help. ( I have never seen a BT device working up to 10 meters in a home even today!). So if you are using RF in your design keep this in mind however low is your emission power!
Looking at all these you will be surprised that a simple EMS will not be helpful while most of the current vendors don’t support engineering. It is up to designers to ensure the engineering done so that product is successful. However, this framework which I have developed can help the designers to design the product addressing all the issues comprehensively.

About the author

The author has over 30 years of experience in the IT industry as Head, Leader, and Technocrat in the Electronic Product Design and Engineering Services and is currently working as the Chief Executive Officer of the Andhra Pradesh Electronics & IT Agency.

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