Earlier this month Lee Teschler, editor of Machine Design magazine, visited with Darrel Baker and Rick Lundin about their experiences with outsourced electronic development projects gone wrong.
Earlier this month Lee Teschler, editor of Machine Design magazine, visited with Darrel Baker and Rick Lundin about their experiences with outsourced electronic development projects gone wrong.
Since its release last June, the Tesla Model S has accumulated a significant collection of industry recognitions, including multiple 2013 Car of the Year awards. I had a chance to test drive one recently, and can say from firsthand experience that these accolades are well deserved. This isn’t just an amazing electric car; it’s an impressive car that happens to be electric. From an engineering standpoint, it also represents a radical push for innovation. Take a look at this list of some of the patents filed by Tesla since 2008—over 250 active ones related to the development of the Model S alone, and more are still pending.
The Model S represents as much a paradigm shift in automotive engineering as it does in our collective opinion of EVs. Though most of Tesla’s technological innovations remain invisible to car buyers, there are a few noteworthy components that are readily apparent once you take a test drive. One of the larger issues facing EV manufacturers is what to do with the battery; they’re heavy, and their positioning within the chassis can greatly affect performance. Tesla’s solution to the problem was to create a planar battery pack, and fit it along the bottom of the chassis, lowering the CG moment of the vehicle and increasing handling performance. Moreover, the 416 hp electric motor is capable of generating 443 lb-ft of torque available at any time, for any reason, meaning the car’s acceleration is far superior to an internal combustion engine (ICE). The same torque is available across the entire rpm range of the motor, so it doesn’t matter if you are at a standstill or at 60 mph. Additionally, the car has a coefficient of drag similar to a Ford GT, and can hit 60 mph in four seconds. I’m a BMW enthusiast, and in my test drive, the Model S ripped through corners and handled an emergency lane change like a sports sedan half its size.
Perhaps even more impressively, the battery – an issue-turned-asset for Tesla – is field replaceable. Owners can swap the base 40 kW-h battery pack for an upgraded 85 kW-h setup if they feel so inclined. The simple fact that this integral and inspired design element is customizable by the consumer represents an impressive degree of engineering on Tesla’s behalf. This is clearly a driver’s car. The interior boasts a 17” touchscreen that allows the operator to extensively modify the driving experience by changing steering modes, regenerative braking, and even an adjustable air suspension that automatically changes ride height depending on conditions.
The next big challenge to be confronted by this new American manufacturer is range anxiety. People remain skeptical of EVs because of their alleged inability to match the driving distances of ICEs. As Tesla begins to design new vehicles with composite frames, continues improving battery technology, and refutes sensationalists in the press (ahem John Broder), the young company will continue to lead the vehicular march towards a cleaner future with a much smaller carbon footprint. Even now, Tesla is developing an EV with a $30k price point to broaden the possibility of ownership to the Prius crowd.
The Model S is a huge step in the right direction. Beyond the landmark strides in tech and engineering, it’s a cool car. The EV stigma disappears in the four seconds it takes to hit freeway speeds. As a result, in the next decade—maybe even the next five years—we may feel the same way about ICEs as we feel now about cathode ray tubes: how quaint.
Here’s an interesting article on Engineering Design Challenges from Product Design and Development.
I agree. Controlling costs has risen in importance for our product development customers. Probably a function of the growth of global sourcing solutions.
Happy New Year!
We are starting 2013 in our new Lake Oswego facility and the engineers are enjoying the lab. It’s a large space, designed specifically for use as a development lab, and best of all, it’s located close to the engineers’ desks.
Two thermal chambers help us quickly identify and fix potential product issues at extreme hot or cold temperatures. The chambers have 7.7 and 12.3 cubic feet internal space, and the computer programmable controllers safely run them in our temperature test range from -60 degree C to +125 degree C (-76 degree F to +260 degree F). We have already detected two design issues at below -20oC that have resulted in design improvements, thereby preventing field failures.
The lab has plenty of standard tools, but my favorite tool is a 16-channel logic analyzer from Salae called Logic 16. The hardware is very small since it acts as a front end for software running on a PC, Mac, or Linux computer connected through USB. The software includes multiple protocol analyzers such as SPI, I2C, and CAN that greatly simplify BUS analysis. It has some limitations (e.g. samples 2 channels at 100MHz, but all 16 channels at only 12.5MHz), but it can capture 10 billion samples and works great for the majority of our designs.
Our work in the lab will help us bring your design to market quickly and efficiently. Be sure to ask for a tour when you visit the office.
Best wishes for the New Year!
Domestic outsourcing—Benefits of outsourcing without the offshore risks.
After a company identifies the need for outside product development, screening for the most suitable partner and mitigating risk are vital to producing the device or system that meets company standards. Once the screening is complete, establishing a productive working relationship with your chosen outsourcing partner is crucial for success. Two checklists, researched and created by a colleague in our industry, can help you make good decisions when it’s time to get help. Read more…
Lake Oswego, OR – November 29, 2012– Electronic engineering and manufacturing firm, Stilwell Baker Inc., announced the relocation of all business operations to Lake Oswego, Oregon. The company cites an increase in its core product development business as the key driver for the move. With the relocation, the company has upgraded inhouse lab capacity, and now houses all departments in a single facility. Read more…
While the term M2M may be new to some, the technology has been an integral though obscure factor in industry for decades. Enabled by the development of smart phones, and the component miniaturization and wireless capabilities that made them possible and affordable, M2M technology has rapidly evolved to generate a far reaching electronic product market. M2M is no longer merely an option in product development; it has morphed into a requirement for a significant percentage of the projects Stilwell Baker undertakes.
An early example (circa 1960) of M2M communication allowed wired systems to communicate with various devices. For example; a SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) system that monitored pressure in industrial facility and alerted a central computer if the pressure was out of limits. With the advent of wireless connectivity, everything changed. One of the main drivers for the evolution of M2M communication has been the significant drop in price of the wireless connectivity, sensors, and processors that are the foundation of all M2M product development. With this drop in expense, development of M2M devices is now more accessible to an expanded number of organizations and consumers. In a 2012 report, the Economist Intelligence Unit predicted that over 50 billion wireless M2M devices will be connected (globally) by 2020.
M2M wireless networks are emerging in a growing number of industry segments. On-Star is one example of a well-known M2M implementation in the automotive industry. Other implementations include fleet management or asset tracking. When you use your credit card to purchase a product, or time at the parking meter, you are using M2M.
In our experience, M2M system development and managing integration with the infrastructure required to support it is as stimulating as it is challenging. Each sensor or remote device must be integrated with a wireless module and connected to a network. Usually this means integrating the device for use with a Mobile Network Operator (MNO) such as Verizon, or AT&T for example. Module selection is also dependent on whether or not the MNO will allow the device to operate on their network. The module has to pass certification testing (in addition to PTCRB & FCC certification) that confirms it will operate as intended on the respective network. Device and network security must be incorporated into the end-to-end solution to protect the M2M implementation. Custom software applications to link the remote device to the central server of the business may also be necessary.
Before long, many of us could be residing in the realization of Bill’s dream — smart homes — thanks to the evolution of M2M technology.
As noted in my last post, the trend to re-shore manufacturing in the U.S. seems to be growing, so early this summer the Stilwell Baker team created a survey to learn more about companies that engineer, design, and manufacture electronic products. Within the limits of the survey, the results validated the current buzz on the importance of U.S. manufacturing to American companies.
The respondents to the survey were a fair representation of market segments within our current customer base, with Technology as the most prominent industry segment, followed by Consumer Goods, Aerospace, and Industrial Goods. Less represented, though important to the reasoning in our analysis, were Government/Military, Automotive, Medical Device, Utilities, and Oil and Gas market segments.
Nearly 63% of respondents stated that it was important or crucial to their companies that electronic products were designed and manufactured in the United States, and this supports the argument that the advantages of off-shore design and manufacturing are significantly eroding. The location of the market a company serves is much more likely to be the key driver for cost-effective manufacturing going forward. It’s a welcome trend for companies like Stilwell Baker, which have a standing commitment to U.S. production.
At Stilwell Baker, we see evidence that re-shoring is gaining momentum. Companies are approaching us for redesign of electronic products that they originally outsourced to Asian suppliers—products fraught with problems. Consequently, our clients are much more responsive to end-to-end design and manufacturing in the United States than they have been in the last 10 years.
We’re hearing about the risks OEMs are no longer willing to take: loss of intellectual property rights, poor communication that leads to program delays, and the business implications of quality and reliability issues in finished electronic products. The explanations we’re getting are similar to those identified in MIT lecturer David Meeker’s 2011 cautionary case study, “Outsourcing to China” where he sites corporate underestimation of 6 risks specifically associated with outsourcing manufacturing to China.
But outsourcing doesn’t have to be a dirty word. In our survey, 62% of respondents said their companies outsourced activities in electronic product development and manufacturing, and 92% were at least partially satisfied with the results. This group also reported that outsourcing electronic and mechanical engineering as well as circuit design, firmware development, and prototyping by their companies overwhelmingly takes place in the U.S., although printed circuit board fabrication, assembly, and are frequently sourced overseas. And although Meeker’s case study reported 84% of global printed circuit board production (fabrication) was sourced in Asia as of Nov. 2011, respondents to our survey reported that printed circuit board fabrication and assembly in China and Taiwan totaled 46%, and another 46% in the United States.
Countries where Electronic Product Design & Mfg. are completed by companies that outsource. Stilwell Baker Survey, 2012.
Additionally, David Simchi-Levi, an engineering professor at MIT, surveyed 105 companies in 2012 and reported that 39% of U.S. manufacturers were contemplating moving some manufacturing back to the U.S; however, he also noted that only 14% of these companies were taking action to do so. Our survey didn’t directly address re-shoring, but instead gave us a benchmark of where electronic products are currently being produced, and whether or not the work is being completed inhouse. The two surveys are related, but drawing a correlation between them would be problematic because of differences in the samples.
Based on the results of our survey, and the evidence mentioned above, it appears that companies are taking a second look at developing and manufacturing electronic products within the United States. Going overseas doesn’t have the appeal that it once had because the rewards aren’t being realized in relation to the inherent risks. American companies are becoming more sophisticated in their analysis of the results of off-shoring and find them, in many cases, disappointing. Although companies in our industry may not be re-shoring in droves, executives are thinking twice before automatically pushing production to China, and that’s a change I’m glad we’re a part of.
Picoamps at kilohertz anybody?
I spent a good chunk of my career working for a major automatic test equipment (ATE) manufacturer, mostly designing and testing analog instrumentation. One module found on most cards in an ATE system is a parametric measurement unit (PMU), which measures DC parameters – voltage or current – on a pin of a device under test (DUT) in response to the complementary stimulus – current or voltage. Because time = cost during IC testing, as in so many industrial arenas, “DC” must be taken with a grain of salt. These measurements are the slowest single measurements made on a pin, so there is always pressure from the market to make them as fast as possible. Still, a few milliseconds is not uncommon. On the other hand, the vast majority of the market doesn’t need to measure much below a nanoamp.
Recently a project came through the door which, despite the fact that it came from a completely different sphere of electronic product development, sounded strangely familiar once we translated the client’s desires into electrical requirements. Basically it was a PMU. Only trouble was, it required measurements of not very many picoamps to be made within not very many microseconds. Fortunately, CMOS input op-amps have come a long way since my ATE days. In particular, the OPA320 was a good fit for the application, not least because it’s available in a five-lead SOT-23 package with the critical negative input pin well separated from the others.
These are not exactly jellybeans, but the cost is reasonable in quantity, which was important because there could be a large number of PMUs in the complete system. It turned out that specifying and finding the high-ohm resistor that is in many ways the heart of the PMU was more challenging. After many days of circuit simulations of the major operational modes and the transitions between them, I was confident of my design and ready for layout.
With requirements like these, the circuit on the CAD screen is only half the battle. Layout, especially if the number of PMUs does turn out to be large, is another major challenge. We had the research and the practical experience to be confident it would work with standard mass-production PCB materials, but only with care. Guarding and shielding techniques, learned well in my ATE days, would be critical. Not only that, I developed a way of partitioning the circuit so that, as long as the most critical parts were located near the DUT, the great majority of parts in each PMU could be located a couple of feet away—yes, feet: far enough to support layout on the largest PCB flats commonly available.
Are you ready for the next transformative technology? Way back in January 2004, Carly Fiorina, then CEO of Hewlett-Packard, gave a speech at CES in which she suggested processes and content were becoming digital, mobile, personal, and virtual. Certainly other people saw this progression, but perhaps she assembled these words first. Thomas Friedman referenced this in his book “The World is Flat” (2005), listing these as factors that are accelerating the “flattening” of the world.
For instance, Fiorina said “Every time one of us walks into a Starbucks, hears a song we like playing over the sound system, pulls out a laptop, and downloads it wirelessly for less than a buck – the digital revolution is more real.” Wow, we could do that back in 2004? Without an iPhone?
So, how accurate were Fiorina’s predictions, and how has this new paradigm changed the scope of possibilities in electronic products?
Digital (content and processes can be digitized and therefore shaped, manipulated and transmitted) – All good electrical engineers know the world is (and always will be) analog at its foundation. Sure, an increasing amount of analog data is easily treated as digital, but analog issues like noise, signal integrity, electromagnetic fields, and power and heat considerations will always be part of good electronic product design. Stilwell Baker has extensive experience in analog design, for example the Erickson S-64 helicopter Automatic Flight Control System and a picoamp current measurement project. However, embedded systems with microcontrollers and digital communications are the bulk of our electronic design services.
Mobile (data can be processed anywhere, anytime by anyone) – No contest here: there are about 6 billion mobile phones in the world. Most of us are connected all the time; we never miss an email or a text no matter our location or activity. In addition to cellular technology, there are many other wireless devices and applications like Zigbee, WiFi, wireless HART, and RFID. A recent Stilwell Baker product development project included a Microchip IEEE 802.15.4 transceiver module (MRF24J40MA) that is a handy building block for a mobile product.
Personal (digital content is created by you) – Another area with tremendous change in the last 10 years.
You are more involved in creating and sharing content – think Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube. Some processes are more personal such as self-checkout lines at many stores, or ordering videos by computer instead of in a local store. But technology is moving past the personal and on to Machine-to-Machine (M2M), the Internet of Things, where real-time digital data is created and shared without those pesky humans in the way (can you say “Skynet”?).
Virtual (digital processes are so fast it looks automatic and easy) – With today’s faster CPUs, graphics processor units (GPUs), and lightning fast download speeds, digital processes are fast and easy. Virtual reality is moving from science fiction to science fact. And virtual teams are all the rage, particularly in electronic design and manufacturing, as groups of geographically dispersed individuals (or companies) work across time zones and organizational boundaries with fewer technological barriers than ever before.
What do you think the next transformative technology will be? Are you ready?
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