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Companies undertaking electronic product development for the first time, or those without sufficient resources to complete a project inhouse, often need help that doesn’t permanently increase company overhead. If this is the case with your company, domestic outsourcing is the way to go.

Domestic outsourcing—Benefits of outsourcing without the offshore risks.

  • Shorter delivery time frames for products
  • Better communication
  • No compromise of intellectual property
  • No unforeseen political problems affecting the trading partners

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…

 

Company moves to larger facility and extends inhouse lab capability Stilwell Baker Building - Lake Oswego

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…

Brian Terhune

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.

 M2M Applications by Industry M2M Applications
Automotive Passenger vehicle anti-theft/recovery, monitoring/ maintenance, safety/control, entertainment
Transportation Fleet management, trucking, courier, asset tracking, telematics, manufacturing and logistics
Utilities/Energy Smart grid, meter reading, electric/powerline, gas/oil pipelines and water tank monitoring
Security Commercial and home, fire, police, medical alert, surveillance and burglar alarm monitoring
Financial/Retail Point of sale, ATM, kiosk, vending, lottery, digital signage and handheld terminals
Health Care Medical monitoring, remote diagnostics, medication reminders and tele-medicine
Public Safety Highway, bridge, traffic management, homeland security, police, fire and emergency service
Source: Heavy Reading and Pyramid Research, 2012

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.

Darrel Baker

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 Stilwell Baker – Electronic Product Design and Manufacturing Survey 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.

Activity United States Canada Mexico China Taiwan India Other
Product Requirements & Specifications 75.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 4.2% 4.2% 16.7%
Electronic Engineering, Circuit & Firmware Design 69.6% 0.0% 0.0% 13.0% 8.7% 13.0% 21.7%
Mechanical Engineering & Part Design 73.9% 0.0% 0.0% 13.0% 8.7% 13.0% 21.7%
Industrial Design 77.3% 0.0% 0.0% 4.5% 4.5% 4.5% 18.2%
Mechanical Parts Fabrication 47.6% 0.0% 0.0% 42.9% 9.5% 4.8% 19.0%
Printed Circuit Board Fabrication & Assembly 45.8% 0.0% 0.0% 33.3% 12.5% 4.2% 29.2%
Prototyping 65.2% 0.0% 0.0% 17.4% 4.3% 4.3% 21.7%
Testing 69.6% 4.3% 0.0% 17.4% 4.3% 8.7% 26.1%
Product Manufacturing and/or Assembly 50.0% 0.0% 4.5% 40.9% 9.1% 4.5% 27.3%

 

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.

Five lead SOT-23-3 package

Five lead SOT-23-3 package

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.

Microchip’s 2.4 GHz IEEE 802.15.4 Transceiver Module

Microchip’s 2.4 GHz IEEE 802.15.4 Transceiver Module

 

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.

M2M Personal Interface

A "personal" M2M interface

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 team

 

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?

Take our survey – we’ll share the results

Give us your input on the growing U.S. manufacturing trend and how it relates to Electronic Product Design & Manufacturing in your company. We’ll send you a report with the results!

All the best,

The Team at Stilwell Baker

On the Road to Houston

Richard Lundin

Stilwell Baker recently won two projects for the design and manufacture of new electronic products that will be marketed to the Oil and Gas industry. As a result of the two projects,  the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston became a priority destination for me during the first week  in May. Yes, Spring is hot and muggy in Houston, and arriving in southern Texas from the cool Pacific Northwest was like being transported directly into a terrarium; but it was worth it. I knew there would be companies that needed custom electronic product design and manufacturing at this show.

As is typical for most industry shows, the exhibiting companies spanned a wide range of specialties—from drilling rigs and platforms to flow control systems, monitoring equipment, and instrumentation. The market segment behemoth, Halliburton, commanded vast square footage on the show floor with the other huge players in the energy market, but there were also hundreds of small businesses at the conference. I spent the majority of my time with the latter.

Offshore Technology Conference 2012

Offshore Technology Conference 2012 - Barchfeld Photography

Most of the smaller companies had been engaged in the Oil and Gas market for a decade or more, and were promoting specific collections of off-the-shelf products that could be customized for integration into existing systems. Developing a new product for the oil and gas market requires a strong knowledge of the customers’ needs and intrinsically safe regulations. My conversations with potential customers centered on understanding their business needs, capturing product requirements, and helping them understand the electronic engineering and manufacturing talent that we have here at Stilwell Baker. It was time well spent; the people were friendly, and I came away with a better feel for the market.

When I returned to the Vancouver office, I found the engineering team mobilized in the lab—entirely absorbed in board bring-up and functionality testing on the first product prototype. During development, they ran into the common challenges facing those who design electronics for the Oil and Gas industry: especially harsh and hazardous environments, and requirements for high reliability and longevity (think of 10 years in a basin of hot crude with 99% outside humidity).

Non-disclosure

Non-disclosure

Last week, we delivered the first prototype to our customer for testing in the oil field, and the engineers have moved on to stress testing. Both new products are focused on wireless sensor networks, and though I would love to explain their unique characteristics and the engineering that drives them, my lips are sealed with non-disclosure agreements.

 

Alex, holding the LCD module while James was using the dial calipers to measure its height to enter in to CAD software.

Alex, holding the LCD module while James uses dial calipers to measure its height for entry into CAD software.

When we received an email from three students at Mountlake Terrace High School requesting mentoring assistance on a 9-month capstone electronic engineering project, I was dumbfounded—Washington high schools teach engineering?  Why didn’t we know about this at Stilwell Baker? In the media, politicians and educators in the United States continually lament that America is falling behind in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education, and they’re anxious that we might lose our long standing position as a country of engineering innovators and scientific leaders. However, no one bothered to mention successful high school engineering programs in an NPR Science Friday segment last month when guests from MIT, the National Academy of Engineering, and others discussed the subject ad nauseam.

It took Mountlake Terrace High School engineering instructor, Craig DeVine, to introduce me to Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a program in which middle and high school students prepare for the challenge of a four year college engineering program. I wonder how many people in our industry are aware of this remarkable program, and how easy it is for engineering companies to contribute to STEM education.

After receiving the students’ request for an engineering mentor, Stilwell Baker engineer, David C., didn’t hesitate.

From Alex: All of our electronics jammed into the lunchbox for storage. In the future, they will be nicely integrated into the top half of the lunchbox.

From Alex: All of our electronics jammed into the lunchbox for storage. In the future, they will be nicely integrated into the top half of the lunchbox.

He quickly stepped up to help Alex, Laura, and James with their project. Since then, David has maintained a correspondence with the students, and everyone at Stilwell Baker is interested in how well their new product will work. The student team was responsible for the project from conception to prototype: in this case, solving the problem of unsafe lunchbox temperatures by creating a battery-powered, thermally-controlled lunchbox.

Teensy development board controlling LCD and 3 transistors

Teensy development board controlling LCD and 3 transistors

Alex, Laura, and James researched the problem and the market, developed conceptual solutions, prioritized a number of design specs, and used a decision matrix to determine the preferred product solution. They then designed the analog and digital hardware, including a small micro-controller, display, temperature sensors, and thermoelectric cooling modules. With periodic emails between David and the students, the scholars have been able to explore the challenges of development and get professional feedback. The students are currently building and testing their design. Their initiative, creativity, and communication skills are impressive and a testament to their experience with PLTW.

This week, seniors James, Laura, and Alex are racing toward their May deadline, and David is assisting them with power supply issues on the lunch box. The students will be giving us an update when they complete their project, so we’ll present a detailed summary of the outcome and the challenges the students faced during the year in Part II: Project Lead the Way and STEM education in action.

Laura-soldering the LCD backlight

Laura-soldering the LCD back light

Next fall, the Stilwell Baker team will find a local school and continue our involvement with Project Lead the Way, and we challenge other engineering firms to do the same.  If you are interested in learning more about student outcomes from PLTW, take a look at the statistics. For the locations of schools in your area, visit the PLTW School Locator.

Project Lead the Way (PLTW) began in 1986 as the brainchild of Richard Blais, technology chair of the Shenendehowa Central School District in Upstate New York. Blais designed a rigorous STEM curriculum for the district that included an interactive, project- based component as a way to inspire high school students to study engineering. Through his successful efforts and a partnership with Richard Liebich of the Charitable Leadership Foundation, PLTW was founded in 1997. PLTW describes the program very well in their lively video, Team PLTW.

Darrel Baker

2011 was a transformational year for Stilwell Baker—I decided to give our customers what they were asking for. During the year, we transitioned from offering engineering and layout services, to designing and manufacturing complete products for customers. Some of the products were simply PCBs and fixtures, sometimes boxes of boards, and others were complete box builds ready for distribution. All of the work was done in the United States, and we’re planning to stay on that course.

Motor Controller - Engineered & Manufactured by Stilwell Baker

Motor Controller - Engineered & Manufactured by Stilwell Baker

For several years I’ve seen a growing trend in the electronics market for low to medium volume electronic product development and manufacturing within the United States. In my conversations with customers, it became obvious that where we needed to go as a company was to engineer entire original designs and manufacture products as an ODM. Now we can manage customers’ projects in their entirety, which is especially helpful to companies that don’t have deep talent in electronic engineering, or experience with the manufacturing process.

Our target market is comprised of companies that for reasons of insufficient volume, complexity, regulatory challenges, and intellectual property concerns, are looking for an ODM in the United States. They don’t want to go, or can’t go offshore.

When you really look at the cost of product development—the labor, transportation cost, time to market, and intellectual property integrity—turnkey product development in the US makes sense for certain companies. Though margin has driven outsourcing to China for decades, the advantage is eroding according to the Boston Consulting Group. “Seven ‘tipping point’ sectors are poised to return to the U.S. for manufacturing: transportation goods, computers and electronics, fabricated metal products, machinery, plastics and rubber, appliances and electrical equipment, and furniture. Combined with increased U.S. exports, these groups could boost annual output in the economy by $100 billion, [and] create 2 to 3 million jobs…“(The U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance: Which Industries?).

There’s also been a marked shift in U.S. companies from outsourcing pieces of a design to outsourcing entire product development because they don’t have the resources, or prefer not to dilute resources by tackling projects outside of their core business. Our core business is developing electronic products, so our services are a fit for a wide variety of customers.

Today instead of asking, “Can we rent an engineer,” customers are giving us everything from the general description of a product, to detailed specifications. We can run with their project from that point—through architecture, specification, detailed design of hardware and firmware, mechanical packaging, product testing, and certification—to delivery of a completed product with ongoing new product introduction support.

“Giving the customer what they want” is proving to be a rewarding experience for both our employees and our customers!