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Should Reference Designs Be Free?

I just heard from the folks at Maxim, who are touting a new reference design called the Alameda — a flexible, high-accuracy 4-channel bipolar analog output that is targeted at industrial automation applications.

Now, I fully understand the advantages of using a reference design, especially ones like the Alameda. It includes fully tested schematics, layout files, and firmware that are available for immediate use and/or customization. In addition to reducing risk and speeding design, this particular design is claimed to use integrated parts that reduce number of components by 33% compared to competitive designs.

I also understand that creating such a design involves the expenditure of time and money. One could certainly argue that such a design is a valuable commodity and that its creators deserve recompense.

On the other hand, I think this point of view could be better argued by someone who had created the reference design as a standalone activity. However, the fact is that actually implementing this reference design involves using a bunch of Maxim's parts, as illustrated below:

As we see, this design boasts a MAX17498B flyback controller, a MAX1659 LDO, a MAX6216 voltage reference, a MAX5154 quad DAC, four MAX15500 signal conditioners, and a MAX14850 data isolation device. The way I've always understood the reference design concept is as an unspoken agreement along the lines of, “We show you how to do it, and then you do it using our components.”

The bottom line was that I was a bit surprised to learn that there was a cost involved with regard to the Alameda reference design. I was even more surprised to be told: “Pricing is available on request.” I bounced around the Maxim website to discover that the price of this reference design is $95 and the availability is “TBD.”** (Following the ** leads us to a note saying “Please submit a quote to obtain lead-time for this part.”)

I'm not sure what to think. First of all, I don't like being tempted with a reference design and then being told that I have to submit a quote to learn what the lead-time is going to be.

Hang on a moment. I think I understand. The Alameda isn't just schematics, layout files, and firmware — it also includes a circuit board containing a physical implementation of the design, thereby allowing you actually to test the design in your main industrial control system. Well, that certainly makes more sense, and it also explains the price associated with this reference design and associated sub-system.

OK, so if there is a hardware portion of the reference design, then I can understand there being a cost involved. But what about a non-hardware reference design — should this also come with a cost involved or — if using the design involves your purchasing that vendor's components — is it more appropriate for the reference design to be provided for free?

— Max Maxfield, Editor of All Things Fun & Interesting Circle me on Google+

This article was originally published on EBN's sister publication EE Times .

9 comments on “Should Reference Designs Be Free?

  1. Daniel
    May 12, 2014

    “what about a non-hardware reference design — should this also come with a cost involved or — if using the design involves your purchasing that vendor's components — is it more appropriate for the reference design to be provided for free?”

    Max, as part of promoting open source hardware, they can offer the designs and reference diagrams free. That's the basic concept of open source hardware. If needed, they can charge for the fine details like circuit boards, associated components etc.

  2. t.alex
    May 13, 2014

    Reference design should be free. Maxim products are also typically expensive, and engineers should have a solid reference design to base on. How bad 🙁

  3. Max The Magnificent
    May 13, 2014

    @t.alex: Reference design should be free .

    In fact it turned out that the Maxim reference design was free — what they were charging for was an associated circuit board — but the initial confusion was what got me thinking about whether or not reference designs should be free.

  4. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    May 14, 2014

    @Max, thanks for the clarification…It's an interesting question for sure. It would seem to me that these companies should be more than willing to provide anything that will build interest and expertise in building in their products. It seems like a no brainer to me…

  5. Daniel
    May 15, 2014

    “In fact it turned out that the Maxim reference design was free — what they were charging for was an associated circuit board — but the initial confusion was what got me thinking about whether or not reference designs should be free.”

    Max, that's a common thing. They may kept one item free and other as paid like a package.

  6. Eldredge
    May 16, 2014

    if using the design involves your purchasing that vendor's components — is it more appropriate for the reference design to be provided for free?

     

    At the risk of expressing violent agreement….yes, certainly presuming that the design sells product, it should be free!

  7. t.alex
    May 18, 2014

    Max, oops that sounds like a user flow/process problem. 

  8. Max The Magnificent
    May 19, 2014

    @t.alex: …oops that sounds like a user flow/process problem

    LOL

  9. t.alex
    May 24, 2014

    Max, I remember Linear Technology they have some sort of software to assist in design related to voltage conversion. Not sure if this  company is better than Maxim.

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