If cultures and corporations can have core values, then why can't entire industries too? When I think about the pace of change in the electronics field and the time-oriented nature of most technology news, it seems that "faster is better" has become one such value. Not only does "faster" operate as a measure of product performance, but also as a yardstick for engineering productivity. Companies are continually striving to accelerate product development cycles to reduce their time-to-market.
Pushing IC and board designs to run at higher clock rates is difficult. But, an even greater challenge may be getting designers to work with greater speed. Our industry devotes much of its resources to help engineers work more efficiently. Improving designer productivity is the mission of EDA companies. Component vendors also extensively support the design effort with documentation, development kits, models, and FAEs.
But, these vendors influence product design cycles, as well, through their ability to deliver engineering samples. For standard parts, delivery might not be an issue. When the components are complex, modular products that require some level of customization, however, designers may encounter a delivery bottleneck. Faced with long lead times on custom parts, designers might be forced to compromise on performance, price, or project scheduling.
Fortunately, some recent developments illustrate how vendors can alleviate the delays through innovative component design and manufacturing. One example is Cardinal Components' field-programmable crystal oscillator (Electronic Design, May 29, 2000, p. 64). This device was developed in response to the multiweek lead times associated with both prototype and production orders. It allows designers to keep "blanks" on hand and program them quickly as necessary.
Field programmability is a natural extension of the existing oscillator technology, which includes factory programmability. These oscillators also were created to shorten the lead times associated with the more-common nonprogrammable types. Nevertheless, delivery may still be an issue because a vendor might be reluctant to generate samples for low-volume production orders.
Order size also is a concern with power supplies. For a custom dc-dc converter, production quantities must be very large to justify the high NRE costs (perhaps tens of thousands of dollars) and the long lead times (maybe more than 12 weeks). But, that situation may be changing. Vicor just announced an automated dc-dc-converter design system that addresses the cost and delivery issues associated with building custom units.
With Vicor's Design Assistance Computer (VDAC), designers go to Vicor's website and specify their electrical and mechanical requirements. VDAC's design generator then determines the various combinations of component values that would satisfy these specifications for a converter constructed using the company's second-generation converter topology.
Basically, VDAC ranks the design variations, selects the best one, and assigns it a part number. If the designer decides to order, VDAC generates a bill of materials, and the assembly and test instructions needed to build units on an automated production line. Samples are delivered in under six weeks, and customers pay only standard-unit pricing plus an NRE of $3750.
If approaches like VDAC and the field-programmable oscillator are successful, then designers' expectations of performance for off-the-shelf power supplies and oscillators should change. At the same time, these approaches fuel the demand for faster vendor response on prototype units and, in the long run, other forms of customer support.