Companies and design teams look to professional PCB design service providers to support their product development for a variety of reasons. In this article we talk with Scott Miller, CEO of Freedom CAD, about what dynamics, benefits, and potential concerns come into play when contracting with a design service provider.
Judy Warner: Scott, will you please give us a brief overview of Freedom CAD, the services you offer, and the types of applications you support?
Scott Miller: For more than 15 years, Freedom CAD Services’ mission has been providing our customers with the best service and highest quality while striving to deliver on time and on budget. Our services include PCB design, electrical, mechanical and signal integrity engineering, as well as PCB layout and quick-turn and prototype hardware program management.
Backed by ISO 9001:2015 certification and ITAR registration, our team is fully equipped to serve a customer’s specific industry in virtually any application.
Warner: What pain points typically drive a designer or design team to seek the support of a design bureau?
Miller: Our customers come to us typically for one of three reasons:
1) They have no internal design capabilities and they outsource to maintain a variable cost model. Outsourcing enables them to only incur the costs when they need the support versus carrying a fixed overhead of people, hardware and software regardless of the demand.
2) They use Freedom CAD to augment their internal resources in order to meet peak demand or accelerated schedules.
3) They come to us because they are working with technologies outside of their expertise and see the value in aligning with someone that has prior experience. We call this risk mitigation. For instance, we design 30-40 high-speed, high-performance backplanes a year. Many companies may only design a backplane once every 2 or 3 years and they don’t know what they don’t know.
Warner: Please describe the main benefits of using a service bureau.
Miller: I’d say the first is scalability: A service bureau enables the customer to get the capacity when they need it to meet their schedules. For instance, we can provide 2 or 3 shifts of layout coverage to help shorten the design cycle time.
Secondly, the use of a variable versus fixed cost model. Outsourcing enables the customers to avoid the fixed cost of people (salaries and overhead), hardware and software, and avoids the costs associated with staff resizing whether you’re paying agencies to find people or dealing with the costs associated with downsizing.
Warner: What type of designers typically reach out to Freedom CAD for design support?
Miller: We find that the companies that have dynamic needs will adopt the outsourcing strategy. Some companies prefer to “insource” which means hiring contractors and bringing them in-house or on-site. And while this provides more direct control, it can limit the scalability. When a company insources, they have to spend the time to find the qualified person and integrate them with hardware, software, internal systems and processes. And for this they get one more resource that can work 40-60 hours a week (and that’s if you can find the right person). Outsourcing can provide a much more scalable solution. Another benefit is that there is often more long-term continuity. On-site contractors tend to migrate from one contract to the next and they may not be available when you need them. We have outsource designers that have worked with the same customer designers for 10, 15, or even 20+ years and over multiple generations of product development, providing continuity and leveraging tribal knowledge.
We find the customer designers that recognize the value of this are the ones that reach out to us year after year.
Warner: Some companies or designers might feel concerned about protecting their IP, especially military primes and contractors. How do you address this concern?
Miller: First, we take IP protection very seriously. We have Non-Disclosure Agreements with all of our customers. We hold regular training sessions with our staff to remind them of their responsibilities. In addition, we encourage our customers to use our secure ShareFile System to transfer their data with encryption versus using email. We use a managed information service provider that has state-of-the-art cyber security systems to store our data. We perform regular work for the Defense and Homeland Security markets and we are ITAR certified and in the process of achieving NIST 800-171 certification. We use our ISO 9001:2015 certification to drive consistency on IP management throughout the company.
Warner: What types of services and EDA tools do you support?
Miller: We provide a variety of services using many tools:
Altium Designer, Cadence Concept, DxDesigner, OrCAD
Altium Designer, Cadence Allegro, Mentor Xpedition& PADS
DFM & Layout Automation
Valor NPI, CircuitSpace&dalTools
SolidWorks, Pro/ENGINEER, AutoCAD
Ansys HFSS (3D modeling), Mentor Hyperlynx
Warner: Since you have such a broad view of PCB designs, what trends are you noticing?
Miller: We are seeing a variety of trends because of the various markets that we serve. For higher performance and high-speed, we are seeing an increasing demand on power requirements and the number of different voltages. This means that we need to plan the power distribution strategy very early in the layout process. The use of HDI is growing due to both finer pitch components and board densities. Backdrilling to remove stubs has become a regular design requirement. Pre and post route signal and power integrity analysis are required to ensure that the design rules are met. We need to work closely with the PCB fabricators very early in the process to select the laminate materials and stack-ups. These all influence the PCB layout process and can greatly impact the design if they are not done in the beginning of the design process.
We’re also seeing an increasing use of flex and rigid flex designs, particularly for the medical, automotive, consumer and IoT markets. These require some different considerations than designing rigid boards.
Warner: Where do you see PCB design going in the next 5 to 10 years?
Miller: Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the PCB layout industry is the fact that the average age of the designers is around 50 and going up. We also believe that speed and density will continue to increase so a designer’s skills and the capabilities of the CAD tools will need to keep up. The path to training designers to meet tomorrow’s requirements will be challenging and we could see the need for designers in the future to have some electrical engineering background.
Warner: Thank you so much for sharing your insight and expertise, Scott.
Miller: My pleasure, Judy.
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