Comment: How many engineers does it take to change a lightbulb?

A guest post by Rob Irwin, Product Manager at Altium, and editor of Envision.
A couple of years ago I went on a trip to my ancestral homeland of Ireland. In Dublin I was struck by the absurdity of Ireland’s tribute to the new millennium – a massive spike official titled the “Monument of Light” and locally known as the Dublin Spire.

The spire is 121 meters tall, three meters in diameter at the base and tapering to a mere 15 cm at the top.

The absurdity of this monument is not that it's probably the most difficult tourist attraction in the world to actually take a photograph of, but that not long after it was unveiled the light bulb that sits right at the top of this spindly Monument of Light blew, sparking a major engineering effort to get it changed.

Apparently the light mechanism can be lowered by a series of ropes and pulleys to allow the bulb to be changed, but the system jammed. Trouble was, there was no crane in Ireland tall enough to reach the top of the spire, so one had to be brought in from Spain to do the job. The whole saga was a costly logistical and civil engineering nightmare.

Now admittedly this story was told to me by a guide on a tourist bus, so its veracity could be questionable, but later as I was trying (in vain) to take a photo of this giant needle a passer-by quipped, "it looks impressive, but try changing the light bulb in it!".

The reason I tell this story is that it illustrates that the inputs required to successfully engineer something aren't necessarily confined to those things that directly affect the design itself. Sometimes engineering decisions made at the design stage could benefit from consideration of information that lies in other domains, and which is typically only considered after the design work is done.

In the case of the spire, knowing the height of the tallest crane in Ireland might have had an impact on how tall the engineers decided to make the thing.

In electronics design, component choice can make a huge impact on the end cost of a device and the ability to economically manufacture it. And having to change components very late in a design cycle - because of cost or availability issues, say - can have enormous impact on release schedules and the ultimate success of the product.

It's ironic then that component choice and management is one of the most ad hoc processes in electronics design, and one for which there is little or no real support within the design environments engineers use.

When it comes to most components, we're spoiled for choice these days. Electrically equivalent parts can be sourced from a range of manufacturers and vendors. When we choose which part to use during the initial design stages of a project we often only consider the electrical and physical parameters of the component. But when it comes to taking the device we've designed to manufacture and production, things like cost and availability, and even esoteric information like what sized reels these parts come in, can make or break the project.

Typically these considerations are only looked at as part of a procurement process, which is done when the design work is finished. Frankly, in today's globalized, fast-turnaround, price-hypersensitive markets, that's too late. The damage of poor component selection has been done.

In the development of Altium Designer 10, we made component and design data management a central pillar of a re-engineered Altium Designer platform. One of the reasons we did this was to bring supply chain intelligence into the design environment, where today, it firmly belongs.

The idea is that designers can access supply chain information directly in the design environment as they make their part choices. Companies can create a database of components and design items that are "lifecycle" managed and linked directly to information from parts vendors' databases.

That means that even early on in a development cycle a designer can consider things like the cost of various component alternatives. They can see that a certain part has an unacceptably long supply lead time. And they can see which parts may be suitable for prototyping, but don't come in a form suitable for large scale manufacturing.

It's this information that allows designers to make more intelligent and informed decisions about the parts they use in their designs. It's this information that lets companies shorten the procurement process and make it much more efficient. And it's this information that helps avoid disaster late in the project development timeline when the procurement guy discovers no one has stock of that particular USB connector, and the alternatives all have different footprints.

The level of competitiveness in the electronic product space is more intense than it's ever been. Indeed electronics manufacture, and increasingly design, is played on a truly global field today.

Shaving every cent off the cost of production is crucial to remaining competitive. To that end, it's crucial that designers have the tools to allow them to make intelligent and informed decisions about all aspects of the design, and in particular the components they use.

Rob Irwin studied Electronic Engineering at the University of Sydney, Australia. He has over 20 years experience in electronics design and testing, and spent several years as Editor of Australia's leading Electronics business-to-business magazine. Rob currently holds the position of Product Manager at Altium Limited, and is editor of Envision.

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