Fragmented Feedback Loops: The Hidden Cost in PCB Design and Testing

Lena Weglarz
|  Created: December 7, 2023
Fragmented Feedback Loops Cover Photo

Navigating the complexities of electronic product design demands a discerning eye on unseen factors inflating costs and hindering efficiency. One such elusive factor is the fragmented feedback loop in PCB design and testing. It is where seemingly minor communication gaps or delays turn into significant financial burdens, inflating project budgets and timelines. Reinforcing this assertion, a study by Lifecycle Insights reveals that companies average 2.8 board respins per project, each costing a staggering $46,000, depending on the complexity of your board. Fragmented feedback loops contribute to these statistics. 

The Importance of Feedback Loops in PCB Design and Testing

Consider a situation where the schematic design team has made some updates, but this information is not promptly communicated to the layout team. Or perhaps, the testing team identifies a potential issue, but there is a delay in feedback reaching the design team for necessary adjustments. 

These are just some examples of the broken communication cycles that can create barriers, slowing down the product development process and leading to increased costs and resources. That’s why ensuring feedback loops are tight and well-coordinated is so crucial for optimizing workflow and enhancing the final product's quality and reliability.

Standard ways of integrating feedback into PCB design and testing would involve:

  • Cross-Functional Collaboration and Communication: Regular meetings and discussions between various teams, such as schematic design, layout, and testing can facilitate a constant exchange of ideas and feedback. Tools like collaborative software and communication platforms can further support this process.
  • Real-Time Documentation and Tracking: Keeping real-time records of changes, decisions, and reviews helps maintain transparency and ensures all team members are on the same page. Version control systems are particularly beneficial here.
  • Prototyping and Iterative Testing: Prototypes should be tested iteratively, and feedback should be immediately integrated into the design process. Quick turnarounds in the prototyping phase allow for more agile adjustments based on testing feedback.
  • Simulation Tools: Simulation tools help to predict potential issues and validate designs before moving to the physical prototyping phase. This early feedback can help in making informed design decisions.
  • Review and Validation Milestones: Setting up milestones for design reviews and validation tests helps in the structured integration of feedback. These checkpoints ensure that any issues are addressed on time and don’t hamper the later stages of development.
  • Customer and Stakeholder Feedback: Integrating inputs from customers or other stakeholders provides invaluable insights for improving the design.

Identifying the Fragments in Feedback Loops

Fragmentation in feedback loops occurs at various stages of the PCB design and development process due to communication gaps, lack of synchronization, or disjointed workflows among different teams. Let’s walk through some typical scenarios where fragmentation might occur.

Design Phase

A lack of clear communication channels between design engineers and layout designers can lead to misunderstandings or misinterpretations of design intentions or constraints. If the layout designers aren't promptly informed about a design change, it might lead to producing prototypes based on outdated specifications, wasting time and resources.

Testing and Validation

Inconsistencies can emerge when testing results are not communicated effectively back to the design teams for necessary adjustments. For example, a team conducted extensive testing and identified electromagnetic interference issues but failed to communicate these findings effectively. This leads to delayed design revisions and increased project costs.

Cross-Functional Collaboration

Lack of collaboration between different functional areas, like hardware and software teams, can lead to disjointed development. If the hardware team makes modifications without adequate consultation with the software team, it can lead to compatibility issues that require significant rework.

Supplier and Manufacturer Communication

Ineffective communication with suppliers and manufacturers can result in issues in component availability, specifications, or production processes. It can induce sourcing components that are not perfectly suited to the design specifications, necessitating last-minute design changes and causing project delays.

Customer Feedback Integration

When customer feedback is not effectively integrated into the design and improvement processes, it brings products that only partially meet customer needs or expectations. Such situations affect product reputation and customer satisfaction.

The Direct and Indirect Costs of Fragmentation

As you see, fragmented feedback loops can appear at every stage of product development, affecting the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of the design processes. The immediate costs you may face are:

  • Increased Revision Cycles: Fragmented feedback often leads to a delay in identifying and addressing issues. It prompts multiple revisions and prototypes, escalating the costs of materials and labor.
  • Extended Development Time: Delays in receiving feedback prolong the development timeline, leading to higher labor costs, potential overtime payments, and lost revenue.
  • Wasted Materials: If issues are identified late in the process, it might lead to the wastage of already manufactured prototypes or components.

But there’s much more to it. Underestimated expenses lurk in the shadows of your procedures, silently draining valuable resources. Some indirect costs of broken response cycles include:

  • Opportunity Costs: Time spent in extended revision cycles due to fragmented feedback could have been utilized to innovate or improve other projects or aspects of the design.
  • Brand and Reputation: A product developed with delays and potential quality issues can harm the brand’s reputation and customer trust.
  • Team Morale and Productivity: Fragmented feedback loops can lead to frustration within the team, affecting morale and productivity. It can make coordination more challenging and reduce overall team efficiency.
  • Failing Communication and Collaboration: Disjointed responses can cause delays in receiving crucial information necessary for decision-making. This lag means that team members might be waiting or working on aspects that may already need modification. Inconsistent information circulating among team members reinforces misalignment and introduces the possibility of errors in the design. Only quick and accurate feedback fosters a proactive problem-solving environment. Fragmentation reduces the team’s ability to be agile and responsive, decreases team synergy, and makes it difficult to prioritize tasks effectively.
  • Customer Satisfaction: Delayed projects and potential quality shortcomings result in customer dissatisfaction, affecting relationships and future collaborations or sales.
  • Product Quality: Broken feedback loops can detrimentally impact the quality and reliability of PCBs. Essential insights or identifications of potential flaws may be delayed or lost, preventing immediate action or improvement. Consequently, unaddressed errors may persist in the final product, leading to compromised performance and durability, and increasing the likelihood of product failures.

Best Practices to Minimize Fragmentation

So, what can you do to mitigate the direct and hidden costs of disjointed communication?

First, foster open communication. Encourage an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing insights, asking questions, and providing timely feedback. Utilize platforms that facilitate real-time discussions and information sharing. Collaborative tools and software, like Altium 365, allow for shared documents, real-time editing, and comment features that enhance feedback immediacy and accuracy.

Schedule regular meetings for project updates and ensure everyone is aligned and feedback is shared promptly. Quick daily stand-ups can be beneficial for staying updated on progress and challenges.

Also, establish clear protocols for how and when feedback should be given and implemented. Having a structured approach helps in organizing the response process and ensuring nothing is overlooked.

Encourage cross-functional interaction between different teams to enhance understanding and facilitate a smoother feedback flow. Ensure that critical feedback is prioritized and addressed promptly to prevent delays and complications. Have a system to categorize reviews based on urgency and impact.

Overcoming Fragmented Feedback Loops: Real-Life Examples

Look at how MakeSafe and Luxonis improved their communication cycles. 

MakeSafe, a company dedicated to developing safety devices, used Altium 365 to enable real-time collaboration between team members. All employees could contribute effectively to the development and refinement of their products regardless of their physical location. Moreover, Altium 365 allowed more straightforward documentation reviews due to intuitive version tracking. It made coordinating and managing product releases more efficient, bringing all stakeholders together during product development.

Luxonis stands out in the robotics industry by taking the reins on AI vision work for its clients. The challenge they faced was the intricacies of handling PCB design with a team spread across three continents. Luxonis wanted to reduce version control errors and speed up the time to market. The implementation of Altium 365 minimized mistakes and respins—especially those caused by version control mishaps, like working on outdated designs. Interactive and contextual commenting directly on the latest designs helped the team communicate more clearly instead of sending screenshots. This way, the company reduced its time to market by roughly 80%

Enhance Your PCB Design Workflow

Fragmented feedback loops in PCB design and testing can quietly erode the quality, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of electronic product development. Cohesive and continuous feedback mechanisms are vital in removing costly design respins and elongated project timelines. By aligning cross-functional teams, embracing real-time documentation, and integrating stakeholder insights effectively, you can mitigate the hidden expenses that disjointed communication loops generate. As you aim for faster design cycles with fewer errors, the role of tools like Altium 365 Requirement Manager becomes indispensable. 
 

About Author

About Author

Lena Węglarz is a dynamic and engaging content creator and storyteller, known for her  commitment to clarity and the 'write-like-you-talk' rule. She joined Altium in 2023, and since then she’s been the driving force behind Altium 365 content, letting the community know where the  world designs electronics. Her work stands out for its ability to make complex technical concepts accessible and relatable. Collaborating closely with engineers, Lena integrates their insights and perspectives into the narratives, bridging the gap between engineers' technical expertise and  the broader community. She fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation of the intricacies  of electronic design.

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