PCB design teams have plenty to learn from software development teams. Although PCB designers are a critical piece of the innovation and technological landscape, only recently has there been talk of revamping the traditional linear PCB design process.
Normally, component costs, potential sourcing problems, manufacturability, and obsolescence are addressed at the end of the hardware development process. This creates a risk of redesigns during product development, which can quickly derail a completed design and require the development process begin all over again. Instead of waiting until a product development is finished, these supply chain management issues should be examined multiple times before planning for manufacturing.
If you can identify PCB design problems before production, you can reduce the time and costs of any redesigns and improve the quality of your finished product. In an agile hardware design process, the functionality of a new product is addressed in multiple design sprints, rather than at the end of the design process. Newer designs are becoming progressively more complex, and a required redesign can consume a significant amount of time during development. Breaking the traditional PCB design process into successive development sprints allows any redesigns, functionality issues, and supply chain problems to be identified and solved much earlier in the development process.
This is where PCB designers should implement agile processes for product development and planning for manufacturing. We’ve briefly covered these ideas in terms of hardware design in a previous article. Here, we’ll look at how you can adapt supply chain management to design sprints in agile projects.
Supply chain management comprises obsolescence management, sourcing, and preparing bills of materials for your manufacturer. As more electronic devices become more complex and require more specialized components, these tasks need to be performed alongside your standard development processes. Applying agile methodologies to supply chain management requires performing these tasks within standard agile design sprints.
Many complex systems are designed around particular components like system-on-chips (SOCs), system-on-modules (SOMs), processors like MCUs or FPGAs, and other integrated chipsets. When one of these components is unavailable or carries an unacceptable lead time, the required redesign for your product can be major. Something as simple as swapping an MCU for one with an identical footprint can require major changes to component layout and routing. This typically requires a complete redesign of your schematic and significant layout changes.
Another aspect arises when considering lifecycle management. You’ll want to make sure that you’re not working with components that will become outdated by the time your product goes to production. The components in your PCB should have a long lifetime in order to ensure your new product will remain relevant and in-demand for a long period of time.
The other aspect of supply chain management is assessing available inventory and lead times to ensure manufacturing and product delivery will be on schedule. Looking into the supply chain for your components multiple times during the PCB design phase allows you to identify long lead times early. You’ll also be able to choose suitable replacement components early in the design process and implement them before the design phase concludes. Component replacements can become required for reasons that have nothing to do with the supply chain. As an example, a result from a simulation may require swapping a component with a replacement, but the potential replacement should be validated against information in the supply chain.
Can you spot the silkscreen error in this layout?
If you’ve been involved in supply chain management for electronic components, then you might be aware of some basic steps you can take to reduce your component costs. There are some simple design choices can help you reduce component costs without sacrificing functionality. The first place to start is to check passive component ratings. If you are using components that have a higher power rating than is necessary for your design, you can reduce costs by selecting a component with a lower rating.
You can also take advantage of volume discounts by intentionally purchasing more components. Consider, as an example, decoupling/bypass capacitors. If you need to connect a large decoupling capacitor to your board, you place use two smaller capacitors in parallel in order to increase your order quantity. If the right components are chosen properly, you may be able to receive a volume discount on your components and save on the total cost for a production run. While this might amount to pennies of savings per component, this adds up to significant savings when you order a large number of boards.
The same ideas on ratings apply to more complex components, such as MCUs. You don’t need to use a 32-bit microcontroller if your other components only use 8-bit data. If your product is not intended to be mobile, then there is no reason to spend extra money on components that include advanced power management features. There are plenty of other comparisons you can make when it comes to balancing component costs and functionality.
Within an agile workflow, your component choices and costs should be examined during successive design sprints, and your bills of materials will need to be compiled repeatedly. This is where your PCB design software comes into play. Paying a bit extra for an application that automatically compiles bills of materials can save you plenty of time (and money) in the long run.
The supply chain management processes described above should be performed in various design sprints during agile projects. Any component changes and layout changes must be subject to validation during the next design sprint. This can include taking advantage of design rule checks (DRCs) and simulations in your PCB design software. The entire PCB supply chain management process, design process, and verification should be collaborative, especially with complex projects.
Your PCB design tools are important for more than designing a schematic and layout. Overcoming supply chain obstacles and reducing component costs within an agile PCB design process takes the right PCB design tools and a committed team of developers. Your team should be adaptable to change throughout the design process. Your PCB design software should give you immediate supply chain visibility, which eliminates the need to integrate a 3rd party component management service into your product design process.
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