Taking up technology trends

Bob Martin explains Mouser Electronics’ role in improving manufacturing processes.

The number of technology makers – that is, people using basic electromechanical components to build something new – is increasing, and that increase influences professional electrical design engineers. These innovators are now incorporating products an amateur maker might use, such as a single-board computer or a module, into their innovation process.

At the same time, the quality of the tools available to amateur makers is increasing, making it even easier and more cost-effective for professional electrical design engineers to incorporate these tools into their own work. The costs of iteration are lower, and iteration can happen more quickly. It’s also easier than ever before to add sensors and take advantage of code examples to build relatively complex systems without investing a lot of time. Going from an idea to a successful product has always presented multiple business and technical challenges for innovators. Today, three developing trends have the potential to ease some those challenges even while they create new ones. To clear the path from innovation to productisation, electrical design engineers need to know how those trends will affect them in 2019.

Trend one – speed
Speed is one key trend changing the way innovations become products. Thanks to 3D printing, rapid prototyping, and hardware accelerators, electrical design engineers can now turn their ideas into prototypes incredibly quickly and get feedback fast. That acceleration makes it easy to iterate, which benefits designers, their companies, and even their customers. It can also create the illusion that the entire innovation-to-productisation process can and should speed up. Take a pair of electrical design engineers with a brilliant idea for a product. They’ve built a version that works – at least under the right conditions – and they take it to a maker faire. After attracting positive attention, they go to a hardware accelerator with the goal of radically shrinking their prototype from, say, the size of a lunchbox, to the size of a deck of playing cards.

Unless the system is very simple, there are so many changes happening all at once that the new, much smaller version is unlikely to work the first time. To complicate matters, with a complex system crammed onto a small board, it’s difficult to test and debug the design. An incremental approach is slower but more effective. Reducing the product size in stages gives people the chance to debug interim boards and optimize the layout. The incremental approach pays for itself because problems can be isolated and solved throughout the process.

Trend two – access to customers
Easy access to customers is another trend that affects the innovation- to-productisation cycle. In fact, it can lead to the valley of death. To understand what that means, let’s revisit the pair of engineers. They’ve made it to the stage where they have a viable product and have even sold a few hundred units online. A major retailer has noticed and places an order for a few thousand units.

Fulfilling that order requires a big upfront investment in everything from material to equipment. Our engineers assume that they’ll be able to fund that investment with the money from the retail sales, but retailers often pay out slowly. Now, the pair is at risk of falling into the valley of death – the time gap between when money goes out to pay for upfront costs and when revenues come in. The valley of death can destroy a young company, no matter how great the new product.

To avoid it, innovators must secure sufficient capital before they try to fulfil a big order. Design engineers face another, similar risk when turning innovations into products – death by crowdfunding. In this case, our pair of engineers decide to ask for $25,000 to build 500 units but end up receiving more than $1 million in pledges. Now, they have to build 20,000 units. They simply can’t do it because they’ll need years to scale up to that level of production, and few customers will wait that long.

Trend three –the impact of sensors
A third trend that design engineers need to consider when going from innovation to product is the impact of using sensors. So many devices are now equipped with sensors that interference can become a problem. For example, radio-frequency interference, such as from antennas, can cause inaccurate sensor readings. Engineers should test sensor results to ensure that they’re accurate and repeatable. Another sensor-related challenge is durability. Just because a sensor-equipped product worked well for a few days in an indoor, climate- controlled environment doesn’t mean the product is ready to ship. Again, engineers should test the sensors under various conditions and for varying periods to ensure that they’ll last in real-world usage situations. In fact, even if the product isn’t equipped with sensors, it’s an excellent idea to give the product to other people and dare them to find problems with it.

Getting help

Fortunately, design engineers don’t have to cope alone with the potential challenges these trends present. Hardware accelerators and product development companies offer many ways to connect with helpful resources. They host events that are usually low-cost or free, with the chance to network. Meeting people in that space is invaluable because they can offer feedback that could save a lot of time.

Some design engineers worry that telling other people about their innovations creates the risk of idea theft, but they can always ask for someone to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Professionals running hardware accelerators also have to preserve their reputations to remain successful. Hardware accelerators can also offer insights into the specific needs of individual markets. After all, consumers want products with different characteristics than business users.

Consumers want intuitive user interfaces, with easy-to-understand menus and clearly labelled buttons. Business users want products that work reliably and won’t disrupt their processes.

An electronic cash register, for example, has to have a quick error-recovery process. Otherwise, cashiers could spend valuable time trying – and failing – to restart it while customers grow frustrated with long lines and may even decide to go elsewhere to make their purchases. Industrial users want products with robust designs. When industrial products are distributed at scale, they’re often treated roughly, subjecting them to vibration or shock that could damage key components. Connections made through a hardware accelerator can help anticipate and prevent these kinds of problems.