MAGAZINE

Design is becoming product-centric and shifting away from the solo approach.

Changes in the competitive landscape that we have been observing for the past few years are now impacting design processes. Customers have more choices than ever, and product companies are competing on increasingly diverse and changing factors, requiring them to respond more quickly with their offerings in order to keep ahead of the pack.

Consider the digital camera. It has been only a decade since digital cameras replaced film for the average consumer. When they first came onto the market there was little choice in camera shape and size, with competition mainly around image resolution and, of course, price. Cameras compete on a broad range of changing factors. Today’s competitive advantage is tomorrow’s commoditized feature.

Today’s consumers know they can expect high image quality, long focal length zooms, and an attractive package at an affordable price. So manufacturers scramble to offer features such as WiFi connectivity, special effects, speed of operation, waterproofing, and form factors such as color and ease of handling. Given the quality of cameras integrated into most mobile phones has increased to the point that many consumers don’t bother to carry a separate camera day-to-day, the complexity of the market becomes clear.

It’s the same story across other sectors. Because today’s products deliver consistently on the basics, such as quality, affordability and speed, the consumer’s gaze turns to the more intangible aspects of owning a device or system. Product design – the creative phase defining the product’s overall appeal through factors such as size, shape, color, and weight – is more important than ever. According to Olivier Ribet, vice president of high-tech industry at Dassault Systèmes, products need to capture and hold the consumer’s attention or risk failure. “Designing for that ‘first moment of truth’ is critical,” he explains.1 “The consumer experience, how the product looks and feels, and the delight it generates, is a major focus point in today’s high-tech industry.”

Designing for “product delight.” Manufacturers are being driven to find fresh approaches in order to remain competitive. One such approach is an increasing trend toward collaborative product design practices, something we see in our customers across many sectors. This goes hand-in-hand with a shift toward product-centric design – a multidisciplinary way of working with the focus on product requirements from the very start of the design process. This is in contrast with the traditional PCB-centric design approach, characterized by PCB, mechanical and supply-chain teams working in silos until all the pieces come together at the prototype stage.

Product-centric methodology starts with the product marketing requirements and an architecture validation process prior to the detailed design process. Both the architectural validation and the detailed design process are multidiscipline with 3D visualization.

This new multidisciplinary collaborative methodology is not possible using current-generation, single PCB 2D design tools. Their limitations include the lack of product-level architectural validation and 3D design visualization, lack of multi-board support, and limited or no MCAD co-design capabilities.

A modern collaborative design process needs to solve a complex set of cross dependencies that include cost, weight, size, power, color, design and more. Additionally, collaboration is not just among design disciplines but is geographical as well.

Capturing and maintaining that original design clarity in the rough-and-tumble world of the product design process is hard – as anyone who has worked in a multidisciplinary team well knows. I’ve sometimes imagined this process (with current tools) as akin to three people using static-laden two-way radios on a collaborative building project. They start out with the best of intentions, repeating instructions that aren’t clear, insisting minor changes are made when the design spec changes, being patient and striving for excellence. But as the day wears on, patience begins to fade and it’s easy for compromises to be made in the interests of expedience.

Thinking back to Ribet’s comment about achieving “product delight,” many product companies are realizing they need a new generation of design tools to support product-level considerations and enable design flexibility for the maximum competitive edge. Designing with this ethos enhances a company’s ability to quickly respond to new product competitive requirements.

Let’s consider two important capabilities of a product-centric design process that enable companies to build more competitive products faster and with lower risk.

Architectural validation. Product development begins with a set of marketing requirements that, if successfully implemented, should provide the company with a money-making product. Next comes detailed design. But, wait a minute. When did the new design architecture get validated against the marketing requirements? It probably didn’t. We are selling in a very competitive market, and we need to hit our price, power, weight, packaging and functionality requirements.

The proposed design needs to be validated against the marketing requirements. This requires a multidisciplinary evaluation of the design before detailed design starts. This step combines cost, weight, PCB shapes and number, packaging, connectors, display, etc. into a single virtual prototype. Upon validation, the PCB design team will be able to see that this is a two-PCB design with items such as connector locations. The mechanical team will know how much they can bend the corners and where the display is located and the two PCBs are mounted. This is a simplistic description, but you get the idea.

It is also possible to explore design tradeoffs while optimizing for design targets across price, weight, functionality, and number of PCBs prior to committing to the detailed design. Ultimately, you get a better design. Once the virtual prototype is approved, it can be seamlessly transferred to the detailed design phase.
Tools such as 3D printers also can be used to help multidisciplinary teams review and approve the design, getting a true appreciation for the product size and feel.

Rise in modular design. Design reuse, or modular design, is becoming more widely adopted as reference designs become more popular and standards gain momentum. The SoC has had a profound impact on product composition and, in turn, the hardware design process. With so many functions being consolidated on a single chip and application-specific variants of the SoC available, engineers can leverage reference designs and achieve big time savings. Many products use SoC reference designs with tweaks for differentiation. SoC has consolidated numerous functions on the chip, such as WiFi, Bluetooth, memory controllers, etc.

SoC companies are providing reference designs that can be used as the core of a product design versus building it up from scratch. These designs are proven and typically have the associated software for a boot loader and OS. These designs address vertical markets such as automotive, consumer, industrial and defense. Utilizing these SoC ecosystems, product companies can make products faster with less risk.

Collaborative design in itself is nothing new, but I am expecting that tomorrow’s successful companies will be those that place more focus on working in this way. The pressure to build more competitive products will eventually drive companies to adopt more collaborative design processes that span disciplines and geography.

References

1. Rebecca Lambert, “Superior Design,” Microsoft OnWindows, Winter 2014, vol. 1, no. 1.

Bob Potock is vice president of marketing at Zuken USA (zuken.com); This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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