Articles by Rob Evans

Rob Evans is a Technical Editor at Altium. He studied Electronic Engineering at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia. He has over 20 years experience in the electronics design and publishing industry including several years as Technical Editor for Electronics Australia magazine.

Balancing risk versus innovation – configuration in the design platform

Monday, October 25th, 2010 by Rob Evans

An approach to balance the risk-innovation stalemate is to introduce robust, high-integrity design data management into the electronic design space itself, where it becomes part of the design process, rather than an ‘add-on’ that gets in the way and stifles innovation. This is no trivial task, and needs to be done at the fundamental levels of the design environment, and through all domains. It starts by changing the way the design environment models the process from a collection of disconnected design ‘silos’, to a single concept of product development. In turn, this effectively creates a singular design platform, with the unified data model representing the system being designed.

A platform-based approach offers the possibility of mapping the design data as a single, coherent entity, which simplifies both the management of design data and the process for generating and handing over the data required for procurement and manufacturing. A singular point of contact then exists for all design data management and access, both inside and outside the design environment.

This approach provides a new layer of configuration management that is implemented into the design environment itself, at a platform level. Along with managing the design data, it allows the creation of formal definitions of the links between the design world and the supply chain that is ultimately responsible for building the actual products.

These definitions can be managed as any number of ‘design configurations’. They map the design data, stored as versions of design documents in a nominated repository (a version-controlled design vault), to specific revisions of production Items (blank and assembled boards) that the supply chain is going to build. This formalized management of design data and configurations allows changes to be made without losing historical tracking, or the definitions of what will be made (a design revision) from that version of the design data.

With the design data and configurations under control at a system level, a controlled (or even automated) design release process can potentially eliminate the risks associated with releasing a design to production. This tightly controlled release process extracts design data directly from the design vault, validates, and verifies it with configurable rule checkers, and then generates the outputs as defined by the link definitions. The generated outputs are pushed into a ‘container’ representing a specific revision of the targeted item (typically a board or assembly) that is stored in a design ’release vault’.

In this way all generated outputs, stored as targeted design revisions, are contain in that centralized storage system, where those released for production (as opposed to prototype or ones that may have been abandoned) are locked down and revisioned. It also facilitates support for a simple lifecycle management process that allows the maturity of the revision’s data to be controlled and defined, as well as providing a high-integrity foundation for integration with PLM and PDM systems for those organizations that use them, or plan to.

Such a system supports high-integrity design data management in a platform that allows for productivity and design innovation. This eliminates manual or externally imposed systems that attempt to control design data integrity, along with their associated restrictions in design flexibility and freedom. This system applies to the management of data within the design space, and perhaps more importantly, to the process of releasing the required outputs through to an organization’s supply chain. In practice, it reduces the risk of going to production with a design that was not validated, not in sync, or consists of an incomplete set of manufacturing data.

With formalized, versioned storage ‘vaults’ (for design and release) the system can provide an audit trail that gives you total visibility from the release data back to the source data, even to the level of hour to hour changes to that design information. This coupled with the unique application of configurations to define the links between a design and the various production items to be made, allows design management to become an inherent part of the product development process – as opposed to a constricting system imposed over the top of design.

But most importantly, design can be undertaken without having to give up the flexibility, freedom and creative innovation that’s needed to create the next generation of unique and competitive product designs.

Balancing risk versus innovation – disconnect between design and production

Monday, October 4th, 2010 by Rob Evans

Risk minimization, particularly at the stage of releasing design data to production and manufacturing, has been the focus of increasing attention as the product development landscape has changed. One of the most significant shifts in the way organizations work manifests in the disconnection between design and manufacturing, where a product is now likely to be manufactured in a completely different location (region or country) from where it is designed. Fuelled by the rise of a truly global electronics industry, outsourcing or ‘offshoring’ manufacture is now commonplace because the potential cost and efficiency benefits are hard to ignore for most organizations.

This change in the product development process has pulled the spotlight firmly on the need to manage and raise the integrity of design data, prior to its release to production and across the entire product development process. Manufacturing documents now need to be sent to fabrication and assembly houses in other parts of the world with different time zones, and possibly languages, which has raised the risk associated with pushing the design release button to a whole new level. You can’t just pop next door to correct a problem during the production stage.

Consequently, there is a strong push for improving both the quality and integrity of the release process, and not surprisingly, an even more rigorous application of the existing design lock-down methodology to minimize risk. In the design space, engineers are forced to adopt more stringent levels of the formalized, locked-down process with the aim of overcoming the much higher risks created by the distance between design and manufacturing. Ultimately, the best and most potentially successful design is wasted effort if poor data integrity causes manufacturing errors, or perhaps worse, if the resulting design respins cause it to be manufactured too late.

The flip side of the risk management coin, promoting design innovation, is the opposing force in current electronics design landscape. While always an important element, the capacity for innovation in electronics design is now crucial to an organization’s success or in some cases its survival. However, every new feature and every product change is a potential source for something to go wrong. We have the crucial need for effective product and feature innovation running headlong into the equally important (and increasing) demand for design control and data integrity.

Companies both large and small now face aggressive competition from all over the world in what has become a globalized electronics industry, and this very environment has opened opportunities for efficient outsourcing. Product individuality and delivering a unique user experience have become the characteristics that define a device’s competitive status amongst the crowd, and those assets can only be sourced though innovation in design.

The need for establishing a clear competitive edge through innovative design, rather than (failing) traditional factors such as price, means that creating the product value and functionality customers are seeking relies on an unrestrained design environment. This freedom allows developers to explore design options, promotes experimentation, and allows for frequent, iterative changes during design exploration. Also, it is a more fulfilling and enjoyable way to design.

The final part of this three part series proposes a different approach to the risk-innovation stalemate.

Balancing risk versus innovation – design data management

Friday, September 17th, 2010 by Rob Evans

Like most creative design processes, electronics design would be whole lot easier without the need to consider the practicalities of the real end result – in this case, a tangible product that someone will buy and use. Timelines, cost limitations, component restrictions, physical constraints, and manufacturability would fade to the background, leaving behind unrestrained design freedom without the disruptive influence of external considerations.

It is a nice thought, but the reality is that electronics design is just one part of the large, complex product design puzzle, and the puzzle pieces are no longer discrete entities that can be considered in isolation. The pieces unavoidably co-influence and interact, which makes the design development path to a final product a necessarily fluid and complex process. It is also one that involves managing and bringing together an increasing number of variable, co-dependent elements – the pieces of the puzzle – from different systems and locations. Pure electronics design is one thing, but successfully developing, producing, and keeping track of a complete electronic product is a much larger story.

From an electronics design perspective, those broader product development considerations are influencing and constraining the design process more than ever before. At the very least, the shift towards more complex and multi-domain electronic designs (typically involving hardware, software, programmable hardware and mechanical design) means a proportional increase in the risk of design-production errors. This has inevitably led to imposing tighter controls on the design process, as a risk management strategy.

From an organization’s point of view there seems little alternative to a risk-minimization approach that is based on tying down the electronics design process to control change. Leave the management of design open and design anarchy, or expensive errors, are likely outcomes. From an overall product development perspective, the peak in the risk-timeline curve (if there is such a thing) tends to be the transition from design to the production stage. This is a one-way step where an error, and there’s plenty to choose from, will delay and add cost to the final product – not to mention missed market opportunities, painful design re-spins and damaged customer relationships.

To increase the integrity of the design data that is released to production, most organizations are managing the electronic product development process by imposing a layer of control over the design process. This aims to control change and can take on a variety of forms, including manual paper-based sign-off procedures as well as external audit and approval systems. The common thread is that these approaches are an inevitable restriction in design freedom – in other words, they impose limits on how and when design changes can be made.

By restricting design experimentation and exploratory change, this ‘locked down’ product development environment does not encourage the design innovation that is crucial to creating competitive products. The upshot is that organizations must now balance two opposing forces when managing the product development process – the need to foster innovation versus the need to manage risk by maintaining design data integrity.

The second part in this three part series explores controlling risk.