Thoughtful Systems-Based Electronics Design
Recently we met Dr. Ed Becze, the Co-founder and Managing Partner of Pegmatis. Ed has spent his long and illustrious career working on highly complex system designs, for everyone from large flagship technology companies to small startups. Over the years, he’s established an extremely skilled cross-functional engineering team that covers every aspect of end-to-end product design. In this interview, he talks about the critical aspects of truly thoughtful design and the key factors that will help lead to your success.
Ed, first of all, I have to ask you: what is the meaning behind the name Pegmatis and what types of services do you offer?
Pegmatis is derived from “Pegmata” which means “scaffolding” in Latin. We are a highly experienced R&D company with end-to-end product development capabilities, all under one roof. We have mechanical, electronics, RF, firmware, software, system level test, and validation experts—essentially all necessary engineering disciplines to develop challenging and highly complex products.
We are viewed by our clients as a technical development “partner”, and not just an engineering “service provider”; meaning, we provide much more value to our customers outside of engineering services; we help them align their business with product solutions, and help them innovate and generate IP to cement their position in the market. We are able to do this because we have significant experience delivering a broad range of products. In addition, we can either offer targeted support to close a technical gap or take on ownership of the end-to-end product design and development.
What would you say is the foundation of a good product development process?
Start with requirements at a systems level—performance, function, regulatory, volumes, schedule, etc. All of these things need to align with the business needs and address a problem or deliver a new solution to market. Do not underestimate the importance of requirements!
When developing requirements, one always has to keep in mind if the customer would want to pay for a feature and use data to drive requirements. Never be dogmatic about requirements without sound justifications.
Things to consider long before you begin designing a PCB are as follows:
- Assess technical and schedule risks to allow for a strategy
- Develop a thoughtful development plan and mitigate risk early on
- Engage vendors and suppliers early on to understand parts, availability, and vendor capabilities and make sure they are aligned with your product and production roadmap
Why is understanding risk a key factor?
Risk is typically what drives uncertainty in product development schedules and it is the key factor in engineering budget overruns. Mitigating the technical risks will help build and understand the development strategy and contingency plans downstream. It may seem like you’re spending extra costly time and effort, but it always saves in the long run. What you don’t know will hurt you in the long run, so find your blindspots early and plan well.
Generally, when start ups develop a concept and if they are lucky enough to attract investment, very often the concept is overstated and very little strategy is given to mitigation of technical risks. If it is part of the plan, it shows capability and foresight, these are valued by investors and management.
Ed, I know you’ve worked with many technology startups. How do most startups do development and why do so many fail?
Most startups do what we call “development by demo”, and very little effort is placed into upfront requirements. Churn at prototype level is common because feedback is always obtained from investors, focus groups and what have you. Opinions and suggestions are endless and very often uninformed and the cascading effect on the design (software or hardware) is rarely contemplated, so legitimate retort is rarely given. If one has a knowledgeable person with experience on the roster, then feature creep can very easily be mitigated in initial discussions.
In addition, all projects operate on fixed schedules and when it comes down to meeting a deadline, something has to give—often at the validation and test stage, which is absolutely critical. Our experience is that startups often fail to do a thorough risk assessment, which is often driven by a lack of system level design experience.
As this pertains to electronics design, most companies believe they have a good (or great) EE and can handle the full solution. However skilled, limited exposure to system level development, and/or direct experience in the product he/she is designing creates some critical blind spots. It is absolutely critical that a designer digs deep into the nitty gritty details of sound design rules; this includes performance related rules as well as things like IPC standards, mechanical and manufacturing constraints, test and regulatory rules that all play a critical role in the product development lifecycle. With much experience will come an intuitive sense of very sound and useful guidelines to follow; this can only occur by doing it repeatedly over time.
I am sure your readers will attest to the fact that you can read data sheets and notes but only 5% of chipset providers give adequate design rules to follow. The rest of the time, unfortunately, you are on your own to either learn by trying or find someone that can help coach you along to get you there. Here is where the rubber hits the road, and if things go well, it is very enlightening.
However, suppose you have a situation where your initial design had issues, and you are on your next revision and things still aren’t right. Experience will help you drill down the fault tree and focus on the exact solution to the problem. Remember how early vendor engagement was critical? Well, if this is done, you will have visibility to see if they demonstrate sound manufacturing practices to ensure your hardware is manufactured to design intent and give you a quality platform to analyze.
We have seen faulty hardware create no end to troubles for some clients. This is when they came to us and we had to review the design AND the manufacturing practices. It is really sad to see very competent engineers start to question their own abilities when tracking down issues and they don't know if it is a hardware or design related issue, or firmware for that matter. I guess the advice is to bring in the big guns when you are at an impasse. Chances are that experienced companies will help you out very quickly, even if it is to set you on the right road.
You mention the importance of engaging vendors and manufacturers before design decisions have been made and be very clear on their capabilities and the contract agreements. What is the value of this kind of clarity up front?
Early engagement will help you fully understand their capabilities and help drive your design choices in a way that aligns with their abilities and processes. It is extremely important to understand if they have test and validation systems—for example, RF test solutions are very expensive.
It’s also important to know if they have offshore capabilities that can help lower costs, particularly as you go into production. Can they support you for prototype runs as well as production? Can they help in the bring up of your electrical products and prepare you for hand-off when you’re ready to scale for production? Do they have sound and acceptable handling/process/manufacturing practices you can count on for a quality hardware product? Can they support you with other vendors for system level products, such as preferred suppliers for mechanicals?
Many startups are very weak in operations management and need additional support; it is very difficult to find capable vendors and hopefully your CM or EMS company can help you with this. It is all about the network of support. In addition, as you transition into full scale production, you will want to know if you can leverage any purchase price variance? How about offshore support? Also, can they support you in terms of quality feedback and suggest improvements? Vendor selection is absolutely critical and must be very thoughtfully assessed.
Component shortages have brought to light the importance of strong supply chain partners and intelligence. However, even when we’re not in a season of shortages, why is this so critical?
Good supply chain partners will help you with tangible issues and very possibly with architectural support just in case you are finding it very challenging to meet the product requirements. Take buttons for instance; these are a very complex issue in terms of design and require strong support. Information about connected modules can be a critical factor to your cost base and offering FW support solutions.
Awareness of new technologies coming out that spawn innovation and help you reach the market faster with unique solutions (e.g., we did a BLE 5 mesh product with a functioning prototype eight days before it was announced at CES.) Chances are, the big vendors carry a massive line of products you can leverage and they will help you with professional solutions. I strongly advise any listener to resist the urge to look for parts on AliBaba and the like. This is a road that almost always leads to BIG trouble.
You’ve touched on some of these points already, but in your mind what are the costs of not thoughtfully designing?
How much time do you have, Judy? (laughs)
Well, here’s the short list:
- Being blind-sided by unforeseen costs due to the lack of visibility downstream to other stakeholders and fully understanding the true total cost to manufacture is always a major problem
- Necessitated but unplanned inline testing can also create significant problems
- When you don’t contemplate preparing your design for testing, there’s an obvious impact on cost and troubleshooting time, plus it is really bad practice
- Time to market is impacted negatively
- Increased or excessive manufacturing cost due to poor DFA or DFM,
- Not planning for transportation costs, and palletization
- Some situations require addressing high cost processes and design characteristics later on in product or business maturity, but this is a business decision that must be made thoughtfully
Ed, thank you so much for taking the time to share your hard-won wisdom with our readers.
My pleasure, Judy. Always glad to pass on what we’ve learned to other busy engineers trying to navigate this complex landscape of hardware design. Hopefully, I’ll spare your readers a few bumps along the way!