Outsourcing your design work is a big deal. How do you know that the end result will be as you envisaged? Will you have full control of your design? Will it be done to the quality you expect and within the time frame required?
Outsourcing can pose some fairly scary questions – so what are they key things to consider and what are the pitfalls to avoid?
1 –Will outsourcing work for you?
Outsourcing of PCB design work is done by a wide range of companies, in a range of industries ranging from one man operations to large design bureaus and equally there is no blueprint for the type of company that outsources or the reasons given.
Many small organisations may not have the capacity to employ PCB professionals or have sufficient design work to allow them to employ someone full time. However, when new product development occurs, the need for these skills increases and, in order to innovate and adapt, these skills suddenly become a hot commodity. In these situations the ability to have these skills on-demand becomes a critical part of the potential success or failure of a project and outsourcing this crucial element can prove a worrying issue for many companies. However, many of the bureaus and freelance designers can prove a vital life line in getting the product to market on time, keeping costs down and enabling small organisations to be lean and responsive to customer/client needs.
But outsourcing isn’t just for those organisations without the in-house personnel. Often outside PCB design support is sought by organisations because the skills required are beyond that of the in-house electronic design professionals. It is also the case that sometimes the in-house professionals require additional support and advice especially if they have had limited exposure to the latest industry developments in design, software or manufacturing. High speed signals, matching track lengths and how the signal propagates are just a few of the elements making PCB design more challenging. The complexity is often driven by the requirement for smaller and faster technology.
PCB design bureaus are also able to step in during periods of high turnover, multiple projects or periods of staff absence, holidays or during interim periods between full time staff. Whatever the reason behind considering PCB outsourcing, the reasons are not new nor are they insurmountable. PCB design bureaus are accustomed to working to tight deadlines and fulfilling the required project specifications catering to a range of industries and criteria.
2 – Hello, is it PCB you’re looking for?
First thing to understand is exactly where your sticking point is and therefore what elements you actually need to consider outsourcing. Is it schematic entry and library work, the component placement, track routing or is it the complete end to end process from design through to manufacture and testing?
When considering outsourcing it is important to consider how much work is required and the process it will require. The five stages of design; Initial design review & integration, mechanical definition, placement & review, routing, pre-delivery & review are all critical to the success of the job and these stages need to be understood by yourself and the PCB designer/bureau so that timescales, costs and design time can be factored in.
Getting a full understanding of the project and work required before outsourcing your project is vital and often ensures that the work can be carried out more efficiently. There are some great articles out there about this that can help you understand more about the design process and range of reputable design bureaus that are happy to answer any queries or concerns you may have. Make sure the process allows for your input every step of the way. Many larger organisations allow screen-sharing options allowing you to gain a full understanding of the work being undertaken as the project develops. It also enables you to view your live design on screen so that you can have the appropriate discussions to move your design forward.
Getting a full understanding of the project and work required before outsourcing your project is vital and often ensures that the work can be carried out more efficiently.
3 – Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
Data preparation and library management are time-consuming activities but is a crucial part of the process and if not done correctly can severely impair the success of the project. From the inclusion of library parts to the collation of data sheets for each item, the importance of appropriate data preparation and library management cannot be overstated.
Some PCB design bureaus will offer this service, but some won’t so it’s important to understand what is required before work commences. Some companies will expect fully CAD generated schematics, but many can also work from hand drawn sketches if required. This initial planning plays a very important part especially when it comes to communicating your plans. This can create added complexities when locating appropriate elements and parts for the design.
4 – The Project Management Triangle
Never heard of it? Neither have many people.
Before you decide to outsource your PCB design work one of the questions you ought to ask yourself is “what is important to the success of this project?”
An easy question you may think – it needs to be on time, it needs to be within budget and it needs to be good. However the one thing people often forget is that all of these three parameters are variable and without all three elements in harmony one facet of the project will always be lacking.
The project management triangle looks like this.
Obviously the best possible place to be is right in the centre where time, quality and price targets are all met – but this isn’t always possible. And therefore you need to consider your options as different outsourcing options often lay within those different sections of the circles
Segment 1 – This option is often seen as the easy route. The work will be done on time and will be fairly well priced in terms of what needs doing but may have reliability and quality issues. Cheap and cheerful outsourcing is great as long as the design is simple and there is little to go wrong. However if the design requires multiple layers, high speed routing and other more complex layout issues, the time and cost saved could be expended by having to do additional re-work and testing. Useable usable
Segment 2 – This option is most likely to be independent professionals. They are often able to provide a high quality service and be relatively well priced, due to low overheads, but because of their nature as independent contractors, they will often, if they are good at what they do, have a number of jobs on at one time and require more time to complete the work. The challenge comes however when multiple jobs arrive at once and the individual has no additional support staff to adjust and adapt to their clients’ needs.
The final segment, 3, usually consists of PCB Design Bureaus, a group of designers working on a variety of designs usually with extensive knowledge and experience of PCB Design. There are a number of these across the UK all with different specialties and with different levels of experience and training. This option is often seen as the most reliable and efficient but sometimes comes at an increased cost. The increased cost can have a big effect on the overall outcome of the project but ultimately there is a choice to be made in terms of its importance if the potential alternative is that the project runs late or has functionality issues.
Obviously when searching for a suitable PCB outsourcing option you want to be as close to the centre of the diagram as possible but make sure you have considered the consequences of falling outside of your target and which elements that are most critical to the success of your project. Don’t forget that the initial costs quoted are just that, initial costs. You get what you pay for and often additional costs can be accumulated and added to the final bill, dramatically affecting your bottom line and manufacturing costs.
5 – Quality, Quality, Quality
Seems like an obvious thing to say, but if you’re looking to outsource, reliability will be a key factor in your decision making process. This doesn’t just involve whether they are physically at the other end of the phone when you need them or whether they deliver the project in a timely fashion. These are all important but there are other areas of reliability that need to be considered.
The quality of the design work is crucial. When re-work and costly mistakes are something you can’t afford, an unreliable contractor can severely cost a project time, money and effort. Ensuring you have a competent addition to your team is essential, but how can you tell that they are what they say they are…?
Well the first thing to look for is whether they have the right accreditation’s such ISO9001 and that the design professional working on your job are IPC CID or CID+ certified. Many PCB design professional have many years of professional training and whilst a good level of education is no substitute for experience, ensuring that the PCB design professional working on your job is up-to-date with all the latest international electronics and design standards is crucial to ensuring that the job you require to be done is completed to the right standard and quality.
On the subject of reliability it is also important to consider where and with whom you’re information is being sent to. Many PCB sub-contractors are happy to sign non-disclosure agreements, which ensures that your patent pending products or closely guarded product information is protected. It is also worth considering how safe your information is in the hands of that outsourcing partner and for some organisations the need to seek confirmation from government bodies in order to outsource their PCB design work is mandatory.
6 – Communication
A good and competent communication process for any outsourcing is essential. Knowing what a customer is looking for and how to deliver it can be challenging especially when there are two people looking at the same product, but with different ideas and different images of how it should be completed. Often this can be where the biggest errors occur. Getting the initial schematics correct is critical to the longer-term success of the project.
With this in mind having the right methods of communication are also vital. Many companies use online web chats which not only enable companies to work collaboratively but also allow them to use screen-sharing technology to ensure that changes being made are in agreement with both parties and hence once the design is complete it can be signed off and agreed by both parties.
The increase of cloud technology has also helped with sharing of large, data heavy documents and means that the work can be shared, adapted and amended, speeding up the decision making and deliver times. With that in mind geographical distance is less and less of an issue and companies are sourcing designers from far and wide, based upon their work and quality produced as opposed to their location.
7 – Long term commitment
Often when someone decides to go down the route of outsourcing their PCB design, they will invariably go back to that organisation again (obviously subject to satisfactory competition of the job). This can be a useful tool when searching out an appropriate outsourcing partner. Check their website for case studies, recommendations and online reviews of the company. If other companies are happy and consistently returning there is more likelihood that they will be a sound partner to work with.
Long term partnerships are also advised, as an outsourcing partner is in a better position to know instinctively what additional things to note within the design or manufacture. Once a sub-contractor is familiar with your procedures and design requirements, they will be accustomed to the challenges and methods required to make those design successful.
8 – Outsourcing the outsourcing?
Quality is a huge concern for many when considering outsourcing and the last thing you want is to go through the process of finding the right designer for you, checking their accreditations, working with the organisation only to find out that the work they have promised to do has been outsourced to another organisation.
This can be a fairly common situation and even though the organisation may trust the company they are outsourcing to, the question is whether their standards will be maintained if they are using multiple designers and companies. This isn’t always a problem, but an additional person in the communication chain can prove challenging which could ultimately create additional costs and challenges.
9 – Value for Money
This doesn’t just refer to whether you receive the right product for the right price. Instead it refers to the number and the frequency you require PCB’s developed. For some organisations PCB’s are required on a regular basis and as a product takes shape and grows in its development eg. new product ranges or advances in technology, changes to PCB’s will be required. In this situation in-house design capabilities and software can be seen as a good investment.
However for some companies, PCB designs are done infrequently or on an ad-hoc basis. In this situation it can often be cheaper and easier to outsource. Ultimately the return on investment needs to stack up.
10 – Improved expertise
Undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons to choose to outsource your PCB design work is the knowledge and experience that can be utilised and harnessed by working with an organisation that regularly undertakes this sort of design work.
Professional PCB designers will work on a wide range of designs daily, so their familiarity with the software is unparalleled. They also regularly undertake training and development, enabling them to be at the forefront of the developments within the industry. Their ability to react and adapt to the needs of the customer and bring additional ideas and solutions to the table helps support and enhance your project. A good design team will have tackled hundreds of projects from a wide range of industries and can play a vital role in bridging the gap between product development and manufacturers by providing an instant skill-set.