Build or Buy: Which Route to go as an Engineer?

September 30, 2019 Zachariah Peterson

Use modular hardware design tools instead of buying off-the-shelf products

Are you hesitant to buy an off-the-shelf SBC? You can build it quickly with the right modular hardware design tools

There is nothing more fun than embarking on a new project, either as an entrepreneurial venture or for your own personal enjoyment. As an engineer working on an embedded systems hardware project, you will get to a point where you have to make that critical decision: which important portions of your system should you build, and which ones should you buy? The “build or buy” dilemma has cut through the hardware community, although it is certainly not limited to hardware.

This type of decision is not an easy one to make, and there is no general answer to this question. Making the wrong decision for a project could cost users and a business owner time and money. Deciding on whether to build or buy is a complicated one that requires carefully weighing, costs, time, and capabilities.

Product Capabilities vs. Skills, Experience, and Cost

The skills and the experience of your engineering team will profoundly influence your decision to build from scratch or buy an off-the-shelf board to support your next product. The more knowledge the team has in a particular domain, the greater the chances of embarking on a successful build approach. Meanwhile, a team with less knowledge and experience in the specific project domain will likely take longer to come up to speed and produce a new product completely from scratch. In this case, you will most likely go the route of buying an off-the-shelf solution.

Of all the important points to consider when deciding between buying and building, balancing costs and required capabilities is probably the most important. For a business creating their own product, the cost might be the ultimate deciding factor. If your organization is designing a product for a client, then you’ll need to present the client with options that show the tradeoffs between capabilities, customization, costs, and conformance to customer requirements.

Cost Breakdown

Understanding the total cost trade-offs involved in buying or building is a complicated process because it involves several stages, but it’s a crucial task for ensuring profitability. Building your own custom board for an embedded system entirely from scratch will incur some of the following costs:

  • Development costs: This goes beyond PCB design. This includes software development (firmware, operating system, BSP, bootloaders, etc.), mechanical design, optional features, testing and verification (performance testing, certifications, environmental testing, board reliability testing, software testing, thermal testing, and others), and documentation. If you are planning to design and build something from scratch, you’ll also have to pay for a license to use your desired development platform.
  • Manufacturing costs: This includes PCB fabrication, assembly, tooling, component, and shipping costs.
  • Long-term costs: If you’re planning to develop your own code for an embedded system, your custom boards might regularly require software updates to fix bugs. These continuous software maintenance costs can be difficult to predict unless you already have extensive embedded software design experience.

Compared to the build route, going with off-the-shelf solutions will undoubtedly save you development cost, component costs in the initial stage, a significant portion of the manufacturing costs, and software maintenance costs. Does this now mean the build option is off the table? It really depends on your application, the cost of the off-the-shelf solution, and the volume you need to produce.

Volume

Volume is something that goes hand-in-hand with cost. Engineers who advocate building over buying tend to focus on this point, simply because these folks tend to work with much larger volumes than a startup or a hobbyist. When your goal is low volume—tens, hundreds, or even a few thousand units—then buying may likely be your best route. The build route becomes more appealing with higher quantities.

Profitability vs. manufacturing volume when buying and building

 

As the number of units increases over time, the “Build” option won’t start becoming profitable unless you can secure an exclusive deal with the manufactures of the off-the-shelf solution. Note that, once you build your embedded systems board yourself and it has passed your testing regimen, you won’t need to rebuild it; you can immediately order larger volumes and get closer to the crossover point shown in the above graph.

Customizability

When you buy an off-the-shelf product to run your embedded system, what you see is what you get. Unless you’re planning on downloading electronics schematics for some open hardware platform (e.g., an Arduino or Raspberry Pi) and completely redesigning the board, the performance of your product is limited by the components you on the board.

Redesigning these open hardware products or other engineer’s open source project is certainly possible, but some of these projects will take just as much time and effort to redesign as building a product from scratch. As long as your volume is high enough, you may as well build a new board from scratch as you’ll have more control over its capabilities and available features.

How Modular Hardware Design Tools Help You Cut Build Costs

You can always go the route of building an embedded board from scratch as an off-the-shelf solution won’t always meet your unique performance needs, may not be scalable, may soon be obsolete, and may not meet critical industry standards for your application. When you have access to the right modular hardware design tools, you can greatly cut down the time required to create an embedded system from scratch. This allows you to create hardware that satisfies your unique application requirements without being constrained by COTS hardware.

This set of hardware design tools allows you to quickly connect standard modules together into a complete production-ready system without becoming mired in the finer aspects of PCB design. This is the perfect balance between building and buying an SBC for your new system: building a system from standard modules gives you the assurance that your product will work correctly, while still giving you the ability to adapt your SBC to your unique requirements. Best of all, you completely eliminate the PCB design costs involved in building your own boards, allowing you to reach profitability with lower volume.

Error identification with the modular hardware design tools in Geppetto

Thanks to the modular hardware design tools in Geppetto, any engineer can streamline the design and production process for embedded systems. You can quickly create cutting-edge, fully functional modular hardware systems in a browser-based design interface, and your designs will be production ready and adaptable for nearly any application. You’ll have access to a wide array of industry-standard modules for use in your new product.

Take a look at some Gumstix customer success stories or Contact us today to learn more about our products, design tools, and services.

 

About the Author

Zachariah Peterson


Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University. He conducted his Physics M.S. research on chemisorptive gas sensors and his Applied Physics Ph.D. research on random laser theory and stability.

His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental systems, and financial analytics. His work has been published in several peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written hundreds of technical blogs on PCB design for a number of companies.

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