The Secret to Buying Electronics Design Services

When sourcing electronics engineering and design services, choosing a supplier that also does manufacturing can have significant benefits, whether you use its manufacturing services or not.

Design firms
Many design firms specialize in electronic design and engineering services. They create a design, build a working prototype, and deliver a product data package that should have everything you need to begin manufacturing. Your relationship typically ends there. Some firms will help manage the transition to production, but the core expertise for these firms is design.

These design services firms have an incentive to finish your design quickly, get paid, and move on to the next project. There is no incentive for them to spend time optimizing your design for production, and you will live with the consequences for years.

Design + manufacturing firms
Many full-service contract manufacturing providers have in-house design teams. These teams will be motivated to design a highly manufacturable product with low component costs and high reliability. They hope to win your manufacturing business.

They will use their personal knowledge of manufacturing processes to guide design decisions. You benefit whether you eventually award the manufacturing contract to that firm, choose a different contract manufacturer, or manufacture the product yourself.

Save money on manufacturing
A design team that works hand in hand with manufacturing on a daily basis will understand how fairly simple design choices have a big impact on manufacturing costs.

For example, in any circuit design, there will be a point where the designer can choose between using an $8 sole-sourced IC and spending an hour to build and debug the same feature with a dollar's worth of op-amps and capacitors.

A design firm whose responsibility ends with the prototype is far more likely to choose the IC and move on. A company working to win the manufacturing contract will spend the extra design time, knowing firsthand the expense and headaches that sole-sourced parts cause in production.

Save money on design services
A contract manufacturer will often charge less for the design phase, because it is not relying on design projects as its sole or even primary source of revenue. It may also give you more honest feedback about your design ideas.

For example, the Z-Axis design team won't start a project if we think the request is not workable. We don't feel pressure to take any and all design projects to pay the bills. Rather, we want only those projects with a high probability of becoming a commercial success and potential manufacturing business for us.

A design services firm is likely to give you exactly what you asked for, even if what you asked for won't work, and it will charge you additional money for revisions.

Preparing for the future
A contract manufacturer's design team is motivated to build a strong relationship that continues long after the design is finished. You will appreciate this when you want to change or enhance your product after a few years in production.

Going back to a design services firm, you may find it's not eager to search its archives for your design, get back up to speed on it, and make your changes.

Your contract manufacturer will have your design files handy throughout production. It's likely to give you a couple hours of design time as a matter of good customer service, to keep you happy and keep its manufacturing lines moving.

Two final thoughts
When sourcing design services, whether from a design firm or a CM, there are two more things to consider:

  1. The team's size and skill mix : It's generally not in your best interest to use a design team with only one or two engineers. A larger team will have access to a broader set of skills and techniques.
  2. Location : You will have a much easier time communicating with a design team that has a culture, communication style and time zone similar to yours. This translates into fewer design iterations and a product that closely meets your goals.

Share your experience with design firms and contract manufacturers in the comments section below. What has worked best for your organization?

6 comments on “The Secret to Buying Electronics Design Services

    September 22, 2014

    I cannot agree with you more.  Designing something on paper or in a simulator is only 20% of the battle in getting a product into volume production.

    September 22, 2014

    I cannot agree with you more.  Designing something on paper or in a simulator is only 20% of the battle in getting a product into volume production.

  3. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 23, 2014

    I appreciate your point about understanding where your partner's interests lie. It's something that is rarely discussed, and certainly not considered often enough. I don't think organizations go out looking to be unhelpful or to sabotage a customer but certainly some organizations are better poised to provide that extra help that the organization didn't even know was needed.

  4. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 23, 2014

    @Michael, do you think there are ever instances when a design firm is the better choice for the OEM to choose?

  5. Michael Allen
    September 24, 2014


    You would certainly want to use a design house if you needed a very speciallized design like RF or perhaps for a product that needed a PC app.  This might be something that a full service design and manufacturing company would not be able to provide.

  6. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 24, 2014

    Thanks, Michael…that makes sense. I see design services as becoming more important than ever before. In the electronics industry, there's an emergence of interest in design by individuals and smaller organizations, particularly innovators who want to capture some of the growing wearable or Internet of things market. Then you have the addition of electronic content to items that traditionally had none (guitars, for example). That means that there are potentially mature companies that are newly getting into electronics and could use some help.

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