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Engineers Do Not Care

It may surprise you that design engineers don't give a single thought to the manufacturing costs of the circuit boards they design for industrial, commercial, and even medical products.

In many cases, that's because the boards are for new generations of existing products, so the project manager likely expects the electronics to cost “about the same” as before. In other cases, the cost of the electronics may be small compared to the overall cost of the product and so the topic doesn't get a lot of scrutiny.

When the design goes to production, buyers will try to reduce costs by negotiating prices of components and assemblies. In truth, there is very little the buyer can do at that stage. When designers don't know or care about manufacturing costs, they will make some costly decisions that buyers can't overcome.

Double-sided boards mean double the effort
For example, many designers don't realize that double-sided SMT boards essentially double the manufacturing process. The board has to go through stenciling, pick-and-place or insertion, soldering and inspection for one side, and then the entire process has to be repeated for the second side.

Double-sided boards are fine when necessary. But often, spending a little more time on the design and layout can eliminate the need for the second side.

In contract manufacturing, we have actually been asked to build assemblies that have just 5% of the components on the second side. There is no reason these could not be single-sided boards. The board designer took the easy way out, saving a few hours in the design, probably completely unaware of the added costs over the lifetime of the product.

Specifying components without regard to cost
We also see board designs with expensive components specified when the exact same parts are available from another vendor at half the cost. It takes very little time to look at a couple of sources for parts. However, designers need to be educated that price should be a factor in component selection.

Engineers should be required to specify multiple equivalent parts whenever possible. This not only allows buyers to shop for the best prices, but also safeguards against component obsolescence.

Training design engineers to care about cost
In our design services group, we get RFQs that provide detailed performance specs and ask us to quote time and cost to produce a design that meets the specs. Only once has there been any mention of manufacturing cost targets (for a consumer product). Our customers are surprised when we point this out. Many of them assume that all designers will design for lowest cost, but that's not the case.

When engineers join Z-AXIS from manufacturing companies and design houses, they have had to learn new skills to work in our environment where manufacturing cost also matters in the design.

For example, one new engineer, on the first simple schematic, added 30 new part numbers to our system. Switching to equivalent parts already in our system took a few extra hours but cut overhead costs substantially. Now it's routine for our engineers to shop for parts that are in our system first, and specify new parts only as needed.

Creating an environment where cost matters to designers
Even if the electronics make up only 10% of the product cost, if you can cut the manufacturing cost in half by using a single-sided board and careful component selection, that's an extra 5% to either improve your margins or price your product more competitively.

You can create an environment where printed circuit board assembly costs matter to design engineers as well as to buyers. For starters:

  • Make sure that new engineers have exposure to the manufacturing processes your company uses for your boards. It can be a real eye-opener for many.
  • Encourage design of single-side boards.

Require engineers to specify one or two alternatives for each part where possible, and make it easy for them to check for and select components that are already in your system.

23 comments on “Engineers Do Not Care

  1. SP
    November 13, 2014

    Quite agree design engineers many times overlook the cost factor.  Their priorities are design oriented, size, shape, current consumption, easy interface etc. Cost comes last in their priority list as the device has to work first before its economical. BUt it definitely is a very good idea to train design engineers on cost perspective. They have to see the product cost as a whole..

  2. prabhakar_deosthali
    November 14, 2014

    A few months back there was a similar discussion on this topic. That time the role of Component engineer was discuused in detail.

     

    I believe each electronics company needs to have a post of component engineer, whose job is to act as interface between the design, purchase and manufacturing to make sure that the compnents used by design are cost effective and available and also are suitable from the point of manufacturing .

  3. Daniel
    November 14, 2014

    “It may surprise you that design engineers don't give a single thought to the manufacturing costs of the circuit boards they design for industrial, commercial, and even medical products.”

    Allen, you are right. During design phase the objectives are different. For any new design the primary objectives are meeting the customer requirement and expectations. Cost comes as a secondary factor. 

  4. Michael Allen
    November 14, 2014

    prabhakar_deosthali,

    Component engineer is a great idea for large engineering teams and can play an invaluable role. A lot of our customers have only a few engineers, and in that case every engineer needs to think like a component engineer.   

  5. Michael Allen
    November 14, 2014

    Jacob,

    I am an EE and design boards every day with my engineering team, and it's true that meeting specs and deadlines are top priorities. We also emphasize understanding what customers NEED and not just what they ask for. We know that engineers can ALSO pay attention to manufacturing cost. It is simply a matter of a little knowledge about manufacturing processes, and a mindset to include those factors as we work.

  6. _hm
    November 14, 2014

    It is utterly preposterrous to mention that designers or most designers do not care for cost. Desinger carry most burden including keeping cost as low as possible. From where do you get the notion enginners do not care? I wish you had design engineer background.

     

  7. prabhakar_deosthali
    November 15, 2014

    @_hm

     

    I am in agreement with you that most of the  design engineers are sensitive to issue of cost. Many a times the design engineers start with a goal of given product to be made at a given price.

    But when performance and reliability is more important than cost, then they will go for quality components from reputed manufactuers rather than some second source available at cheaper prices .

    Also when a product is to be made in limitd quantities , the component cost becomes less important as compared to a mass prodcution where every penny saved in component cost can save millions.

  8. _hm
    November 15, 2014

    @Prabhakar: Thanks. Yes, what you mention is quiet true. Design engineer undergoes process of agony in conceiving and designing new product. There are so many facets of product he needs to take care of. Often it is very difficult or time consuming to list and justify design decision and parts selection.

    If design reveiws are conducted, peer designer can suggest alternate way of saving cost with his past experience. But if designer needs to take burden of product meeting specifications, he meeds authority in selecting parts and process.

     

  9. Michael Allen
    November 16, 2014

    @_hm,

     

    I have been a design engineer with a BS EE for over 30 years designing and putting into production about a thousand products.  In the vast majority of cases the other engineers really do not concern themselves with the cost of the product.  I have always been concerned with the manufacturing cost so in every job I could make the decision of using say two diodes vs. one transistor.  Many times I have asked a fellow engineer what something cost and they would reply that they did not care because that was purchasing issue.  I have checked with the distributors that call on me and they have said that very few engineers ever concern themselves with parts cost.  Certainly high volume consumer circuits face cost scrutiny but that is a small portion of US designs anymore.  I have also seen mechanical designers more sensitive to cost but most assume that the electronics costs what they have to.

  10. _hm
    November 16, 2014

    @Michael: Thanks for reply. Two diodes vs one transistor. Two diodes sometimes may be costlier and not always a good solution. Apart from performance, reliability and other aspects, it may occupy more PCB real estate. PCB real estate is more expensive. It may add complexity to ICT and does not look green too.

    Each designer has different vision and sholud be respected, many a time it is not wirth bickering and eventually screwing up the original goal and intent of design.

  11. _hm
    November 16, 2014

    @Michael: Branding and belittling whole EE designer commnunity with your limited past experience is not good practice. I generally take 80/20 rule and just reconcile in that 20% has different way of doing thing. And just try to understand their logic.

  12. t.alex
    November 16, 2014

    that engineers do not care about how much does it cost in supply chain. Engineers apparently do not care about logistics cost, supply cost, they are willing to spend thousands of dollars on a single shipment just to make it happen. Companies need to train engineers give more thoughts how much they need to spend to be more productive and cost efficient.

  13. Daniel
    November 16, 2014

    ” We know that engineers can ALSO pay attention to manufacturing cost. It is simply a matter of a little knowledge about manufacturing processes, and a mindset to include those factors as we work.”

    Allen, I can understand the priority and need for that. But when we look for an alternative for the existing design or board, we will keep cost effectiveness as the priority.

  14. SunitaT
    November 17, 2014

    “that engineers do not care about how much does it cost in supply chain. Engineers apparently do not care about logistics cost, supply cost, they are willing to spend thousands of dollars on a single shipment just to make it happen. Companies need to train engineers give more thoughts how much they need to spend to be more productive and cost efficient.”

    @t.alex: I completely agree with you. Engineers do not care because they do not have a closer relationship with supply chain officials so it doesn't matter to them how many bucks a company is losing on the supply chain just because the engineer thinks a process is faster than before.

  15. SunitaT
    November 17, 2014

    “Allen, I can understand the priority and need for that. But when we look for an alternative for the existing design or board, we will keep cost effectiveness as the priority.”

    @Jacob: Cost effectiveness is always the priority but it shouldn't come in the way of design principles. For example, people would normally like a better looking smartphone over a worse looking but slightly better performing smartphone.

  16. Daniel
    November 17, 2014

    “Cost effectiveness is always the priority but it shouldn't come in the way of design principles. For example, people would normally like a better looking smartphone over a worse looking but slightly better performing smartphone.”

    Tirlapur, would you thing Samsung Galaxy S4/S5 , Note series and IPhone are worth for that cost. Not at all; they need it to mark it as a premium version and hence tagged with high prices. 

  17. Daniel
    November 17, 2014

    ” Engineers do not care because they do not have a closer relationship with supply chain officials so it doesn't matter to them how many bucks a company is losing on the supply chain just because the engineer thinks a process is faster than before.”

    Tirlapur, a good engineer has to think it that level. They have to visualize about the end user use cases and how it will be beneficial for them. 

  18. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    November 18, 2014

    @prabhakar, in an ideal world there would always be a component engineer. What should organizaitons do, though, if they are smaller and can't afford a dedicated engiener? Any advice?

  19. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    November 18, 2014

    @_hm, i believe that the biggest problem is not malice but ignorance. I do believe that engineers would like to be sensitive to cost, but often the process of designing makes tracing the real cost of the design fall by teh wayside. The designer does have a huge list of concerns–it's mot an easy job.

  20. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    November 18, 2014

    @Michael,  You have a lot of experience with this! i think training is a critical part of the puzzle. What would you recommend in terms of raising awareness in engineers? Would it be ongoing education? Corproate policies?

  21. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    November 18, 2014

    @t.alex, a better collaboration between purchasing/supply chain and designers would go a long way of helping this issue. @EBNers, what have your organizations done to improve the way these two functions work better together?

  22. prabhakar_deosthali
    November 19, 2014

    Since I have worked in small, medium as well as large organizations, I can tell from my experience that , in small organizations the department boundaries are not that rigid and many atimes every engineer has to wear multiple hats. So in such an organization when a design engineer designs a product, he/she very well knows the cost constarints , the availability constarints, the manufactruing constraints etc because many times the single engineer is handling all those responsibilities or if at all there isa separate procurement team , the design team is in very close interaction with them while selecting components.

     

     

  23. Michael Allen
    November 19, 2014

    @Hailey, Yes, education is the solution to the problem. I am always amazed when I ask one of our new experienced engineers during their first circuit review if they tried using any of the components we already stock and they act surprised. Often they say that they had know idea I would expect that from a design engineer. Fortunately with a little coaching most respond quite well and start looking at the parts we are purchasing.

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