Time is a precious commodity these days. In the electronics industry it can mean the difference between a product’s success or failure. For the company introducing that product, it can determine whether it leads the competition or falls behind it. How much of it is spent in the design process has a direct impact on the product’s cost targets. A good deal of that time, 26% in fact, is spent just correcting or changing design data.
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That statistic makes sense, since by its very nature, innovation demands design iteration and change, both of which take time. Iteration is a fundamental part of the electronics design process and of who engineers are—they continually seek to make improvements in the world around them. Unfortunately, this innate desire to constantly improve the designs they and others create is at odds with corporate objectives to meet release targets, while still meeting product and development costs. Further complicating matters, when late changes are made to a design, new design work is interrupted. The further along a design is the more time impact to an organization. According to 2011 study from the Aberdeen Group, a typical engineering change costs almost $2,000 to implement during the design phase. Once the design has been released to manufacturing, however, that cost skyrockets to almost $11,000.
For many modern electronics companies, the problem boils down to one thing—ineffective Engineering Control Order (ECO) management. Today, the different processes and formats they have to deal with at each link in their tool chain complicates and slows down design changes. Engineers must also deal with challenges relating to the speed of changes, the number of files affected by any single change and the manual mark-ups needed to express the intent behind the change. Any one of these challenges alone can be tedious at best, taken together however; they present a monumental obstacle for engineers dealing with iterations and changes in the design process.
Hope As A Design Strategy
The typical way of dealing with ECOs and the challenges they create is to use an ad hoc approach that is very manual and error-prone in nature, with engineers relying heavily on the “hope” that all changes have been made, propagated and documented correctly (Fig. 1). Essentially, when a change is made in a design, a traveler document is created and stapled to an ever expanding manila folder that snakes its way from one stakeholder in the design process to the next. At each stage in the process, each player manually documents and approves the changes as they go. This process is usually augmented with email chains, graph paper and a fist full of highlighters. Once the design’s netlist has been created, it is thrown over the fence to the layout designer. The engineer then holds his breath, hoping that all changes have happened at the right time, using the right components and mapped to the right pins.
While hardly a 21st century solution for a problem that has existed in the electronic design automation industry since its genesis, this approach is one that is echoed time and time again amongst engineers worldwide. Engineers often assume that the administrative bureaucracy associated with traditional ECO management is simply a fact of life to be accepted and endured, however; nothing could be farther from the truth. Design changes are a fact of life, but the manual, administrative headaches that often come with them don’t have to be. The bottom line here is clear: when it comes to dealing with ECO management, hope is not an effective design strategy.
The Unified Design Strategy
For those engineers who have ever found their printed circuit board and schematic out of sync, been let down by their netlist, had a mismatched schematic and bill of materials (BOM), handwritten an ECO, or wantead to release a product on time or on budget, there is now an alternative to the traditional ECO control process. The answer lies in utilization of a unified design strategy and environment that unifies each design editor under one tool and within that tool, implements an automated and accountable ECO process with the ability to trace individual elements of the design (Fig. 2). Using this approach, engineers can now meet their objectives and address the manual change control process with just the push of a button.
With an automated ECO process, the engineer gains repeatability, accountability and traceability. Each time the engineer pushes or pulls a change from one design domain to another, they invoke an ECO dialog box where they can validate any changes before committing to them. This allows them to accurately assess if a given change can even be made and specifically determine which elements, if any, will be affected. Once the engineer is satisfied, they can then implement the change with just the click of a mouse. Lastly, the engineer can report the change to an electronic or paper format, thereby ensuring that all proper documentation and certification requirements are available for the full change cycle of the design.
With time at a premium, the traditional method for making, propagating and documenting ECOs along a toolchain is simply no longer effective. It is manual in nature, wastes time, penalizes engineers for even making changes, and is highly error prone. On the other hand, the benefits of using a unified design strategy to address the ECO control process are numerous. It eliminates the need for manual mark-ups, handwritten ECOs and having to perform post manufacturing design changes due to mistakes. It also ensures all design data is synchronized at every step of the process. More importantly, it allows engineers to gain back that 26% of pure design time they lost using the more traditional approach to ECOs, while completely doing away with all the manual and error prone processes associated with change management. At the end of the day, that allows companies to significantly increase their ability to meet cost targets, decrease their development time, release their products on time, and meet their quality targets at design release—all critical factors in maintaining a leading advantage in today’s highly dynamic and competitive electronics marketplace.