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About An Electronic Design Project
September 28, 2005

For quite sometime, I've been busy with the design of a CCD (*) based imaging product applicable to the industrial and medical imaging areas. Although I've spent lots of time on software engineering and systems design, I've interest in electronics since my childhood, continued with my studies in the university on control & computer engineering.

It will be meaningless for me to claim being as competent as an electronics engineer in this field. I've well realized that these kind of projects are best done by team collaboration for quite sometime. So, I've teamed up with Basri Kul who is one of the best electronics engineers in Turkey.

Our design project started in July 2004 and it's at its 2nd prototyping stage as of today. Once the missing parts arrive in October from abroad, we will be able to finalize the prototype and see whether it will help create business value or not.

In the rest of this article, I will share some of the experiences we have gained during our CCD based electronic imaging project.

An electronic design project basically consists of the following phases:

 0. Market research
 1. Requirements analysis
 2. Functional design
 3. Electronic design
 4. Getting the samples
 5. Prototyping
 6. Testing the prototype
 7. Revising the prototype
 8. Test production
 9. Field tests
10. Procurement of the electronic parts
11. Mass production

Initial step before advancing to the functional and electronic design phases, usually some market research is performed in the markets that the product is planned to be sold so that, market dynamics and competition is well understood. After this research, it's possible to get some insight on the possible end user price of the product. Since I want to deal with the electronic design process in this article, I will leave out the business development topics like market analysis, pricing, product strategies, sales, marketing and distribution channels to some other articles.

In the next step, product functionality, its properties and some other parameters are defined.

Based on the study perfomed in the requirements analysis phase, a functional design is performed.

Initial electronic design must be verified on a prototype before advancing to the mass production stage. In step 3, electronic design of the prototype is performed. In this phase, electronic components and their alternatives that are to be used in the design are determined.

Parts to be used in the prototype are ordered as samples in phase 4. In addition to this, small amounts of purchases can be performed. In case of being unable to fetch the samples within predefined quantities and time frames, prototype can be revised with alternative parts. Getting quotations from the suppliers of the samples for mass production will help determine production costs in the upcoming stages.

Phase 4 is infact a very critical stage. Aside from physically bringing the components to be used in the prototype; preferred suppliers, information about pricing for mass production, lead times and predicting the position of the product to its rivals based on these conditions can all be evaluated at this stage.

In case the parts to be used in the design are known before hand, cost analysis can be performed in the initial stages to verify the feasibility of the design. When the costs are over expectations, decisions can be made about the fate of the project in the earlier stages without wasting too much time and money.

After the arrival of the samples, it's possible to advance to the prototyping phase. In phase 5, components are mounted on PCBs. Small scale electronic design companies usually don't have automatic mounting machines so that this process is performed manually. Having alternatives to some parts makes it possible to make some cost analysis based on the data gathered at stage 4 and decisions can be made whether they can be used for the same functionality with lowered costs.

Next step is unit testing the prototype. Design is verified against the criterias specified at phases 1 and 2. Apart from the functional tests, tests like EMI can be performed inhouse or can be outsourced to other companies at this stage.

If tests results are negative or certain modifications are required, a revised prototype is designed and process goes back to phase 4 again. Certain amount of time can be lost if the revisions require new samples to be delivered.

If the test results are positive and the functionality has been verified, a test production can be performed based on the parts ordered as samples. If the sample quantities are not enough for the test production volumes, components in small quantities can be re-ordered.

At phase 9, field tests of the test production is performed. Product is verified against real-life users and real-time use. If the functionality defined at phase 1 and 2 are verified in the field, mass production can be scheduled.

Before going into mass production, high volumes of component procurement will be required.

After briefly summarizing the stages of an electronic design project, I will go over some of the difficulties we have had during our project:

Conservative Japaneese Manufacturers

We have decided to use Sony CCDs in our imaging project based on the fact that their sensitivities were higher than their competitors. Information related to CCD sensors and accompanying chipsets are published on Sony websites. Eventough these parts are in production, we couldn't manage to get technical datasheets and application notes for certain parts from Sony. Most answers we have received were like "We don't sell and support these products in your region". We have contacted Sony's competitors like Panasonic but we got almost the same replies from them as well.

It was quite strange for us to realize that although these product were publicly announced at their websites without region-wise distinctions, it was virtually impossible to get technical help from these companies. Japaneese companies well deserve the reputation of being ultimately conservative. Companies like Sony and Panasonic are just into consumer electronics business in Turkey so that it was impossible for us to get local help related to their semiconductor businesses. We just had to contact their European headquarters but it was useless again.

I figure out the reason behind this behavior as to gain competitive advantange in the respective markets like digital cameras over other companies until the technology is rendered obsolete since these companies are both manufacturing the building blocks and the end products.

On the contrary, CMOS image sensor manufacturers are smaller companies that are reacting much faster and positively to inquiries. Based on the fact that CCD sensors are superior over CMOS sensors by means of sensitiviy, we had decided to make our initial product using CCD technology. Being unable to get support from Sony, we have gathered almost anything from the Internet like datasheets and application notes. We have found some of the answers at video and ccd news groups. We got the samples from a Sony distributor in Taiwan in small quantities and almost with no leadtime.

Samples and Suppliers

We had problems getting samples for some other parts apart from Sony as well. The major problem was the high minimum order quantities required by big distributors abroad. It was quite unfeasible to get 600 pcs from a certain chip at prototyping stages. We have spent lots of time for finding alternative suppliers - thanks to our 3000 e-mails :)

Local offices of some international distributors like Avnet, Future and Arrow were quite helpful in supplying samples. However, a very strong follow-up was required since we couldn't get timely feedbacks most of the time.

According to my idea, one of the most critical elements affecting mass production costs is the ability to get the required components with best prices and leadtimes for the estimated production volumes. Some manufacturers work with leadtimes like 12 weeks which may well cause serious market losses.

Phase 4 is very critical by means of getting the initial contacts with suppliers and manufacturers. Getting accurate quotes at this stage can be crucial for forecasting certain issues at the production stage.

Distributors in Europe and North America are usually selling the same parts with higher prices than their counterparts in the far-east. It possible to get the best prices and leadtimes from serious distributors in the far-east. However, special attention should be paid to the suppliers in China since fraud rates are quite high. (There are some very reliable Chineese suppliers as well). Distributors in South Korea and Taiwan are usually better by means of communication, quality and reliability.

Working with a reliable supplier who has a large linecard is critical for lowering costs because every other order from a different supplier will cause additional funds transfer and shipment costs.

Tailor made products like crystals with specific frequencies usually have long leadtimes since these products are custom made.

Is December 31th the newyear for everyone ?. Guess what :) It's not...

PCBs, Mounting and Intellectual Property Rights

In Turkey, some 3-4 years ago we had to outsource our pcb requirements to foreign companies. Now, companies like Delron that are based in Turkey giving these kind of services to both local and foreign customers. This is something good. We are using a 2-layer pcb in our prototypes to lower our initial costs. Normally, video imaging applications are done using a 4-layer pcb to reduce crosstalk and noise but this costs alot more than 2-layer ones.

Small scale electronic design companies usually don't have automatic mounting machines so that this process is performed manually. Manually soldering SMD components are very tiresome, time consuming and a prone to error process.

In order to prevent errors, it would be nice to have automatic mounting capabilities outsourced from a pcb services company. However, in this case you have to protect yourself against intellectual property frauds since you will be giving both the design and the components to a 3rd party. You may well see your product in the shelves within 1-2 months.

Nobody would like something like that, that's for sure :)

Production Quantities, Unit Costs and Outsourcing Services Required

The major element affecting unit costs in an electronic design project is production volumes. There will be huge difference between unit costs for orders like 1000 pcs and 10000 pcs (Usually around 70%). Since we are procuring most of the parts from abroad, realistic market analysis and production volumes are critical for getting the parts with minimum cost and leadtime.

Apart from the electronics, components like lenses, industrial design, molding, packaging and certifications are required for the end product. Estimating the costs of these items before hand are crucial for the completion of the project.

Here the most important money sinks will be molding costs and certifications like CE. Precision injection molding is still not of very high quality in Turkey so we need to source this service from abroad. A CE certification is required for every product manufactured. Class II and higher grade products need to be certified by a CE authority which is also not present in Turkey :)

Under these circumstances one can ask to himself: Why the hell are you dealing with production ? :)

(*) CCD (Charge Coupled Device)

The first CCD was developed in 1969 by George Smith and Willard Boyle at Bell Laboratories. A CCD is basically an electronic converter which converts photons to electric charges. It's widely used in digital cameras and scanners. Due to its structure, it has more sensitivity to light compared to its more compact counter part - CMOS image sensors. Sony is the leading company in CCD business with its SuperHAD and EXviewHAD technologies.

© 2005 Ilker Atalay
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