Electronic Design
To Build Or To Buy? That Is The Wireless Developer’s Question

To Build Or To Buy? That Is The Wireless Developer’s Question

You face this dilemma on a regular basis—should you do a job yourself or hire someone to do it for you? I’m a car guy, and when I was younger, I used to change the oil myself. It was a point of both pride and economics. But over the years as oil changes moved into the realm of 15-minute quick-change stations, it really didn’t make sense to do it myself anymore.

I wasn’t saving much money once I factored in the time and hassle of buying the oil and filter, doing the service, and then disposing of the used oil. I still work on my car, but it tends to be jobs that are more interesting and offer more potential money savings.

Because wireless semiconductor suppliers continually take steps to reduce the complexity of wireless solutions and make radio design more turnkey, there are also “design, build, or buy” decisions that engineers consider when adding wireless functionality to their products.

For example, seminconductor solutions that incorporate automatic antenna tuning, embedded MCUs, integrated crystals, boost and buck power supplies, and even antenna matching circuitry reduce the bill of materials (BOM) of the end solution, effectively creating a “module on a chip.”

Additionally, most chip vendors will supply various flavors of software support to help develop the wireless design. This support can range from simple configuration software for bootstrapping the design all the way through complete wireless networking solutions targeting various standards such as IPv6 and Wireless M-Bus.

When choosing a wireless solution, it’s important to evaluate the range of options available to get the design to market in the most efficient way. Depending on the volume and application, it may make sense to design and build it or instead to pay someone else for their time and expertise to get it to market faster.

Outsourcing The Design

For some customers the right decision is to turn over the project to a design house with a history of wireless experience that can create a custom design tailored to the specific needs of the application. Numerous well-respected companies are dedicated to this type of work. In my wireless role I have worked with many of them, and they are often crucial in helping our customers with their end designs.

These customers often have great product ideas, but lack the in-house RF expertise to design, test, and certify their end products. And since the designs are fully customized for the application, the form factor of the solution including the all-important antenna design can be optimized. For these customers, a turnkey design house makes an excellent partner. The cost of farming out a design can be high, but if the end unit volumes are large enough, this route can still offer significant overall cost savings.

Mighty Modules

Other customers have the application knowledge but may be adding wireless support to their systems for the first time. Often these customers will select a wireless module to add the wireless functionality to their systems. Wireless modules offer the advantage of providing a proven, fully certified, drop-in solution that can be added easily to the customer’s design.

A wireless module usually already will have compliance certification, allowing the customer to bypass most of the wireless regulatory testing and accelerating time-to-market. Since the customer is buying an assembled, fully tested, and fully certified module, the per-unit cost is higher than the sum of the component costs. But given the cost of developing, debugging, testing, and certifying the design, these modules make economic sense for many customers.

One drawback to using a module for a solution is that the module form factor or antenna might not be workable in the end product form factor. If the enclosure for the product must be a certain size and shape, the module is sometimes difficult to use.

On the positive side, many module manufacturers supply software with their solutions to further assist with creating fully functioning communication links. Module manufacturers often have implemented higher-level software for specific applications such as home automation, metering, and networking. These solutions can help customers get their designs up and running more quickly.

Of course, there are scenarios where using wireless modules may not be economically viable over time. In these instances, customers often will need to redesign their systems to remove the module and replace it with an onboard design. A hurdle in the transition is moving from the module maker’s firmware to the customer’s own software.

The customer can bridge this gap by working with the module manufacturer to supply a solution with its firmware running on a wireless MCU as a standalone device. This flexible arrangement enables the customer to begin with a module-based design while unit volumes are modest and then move to an on-board design as the volumes ramp, while still using the module manufacturer’s firmware.

As a wireless supplier, we’ve worked to provide our customers with a range of options such as partnering with wireless design houses and module manufacturers or using integrated “module in package” solutions. The goal is to give customers “design, build, or buy” options that make the most economic sense based on their needs.

In the case of my car, instead of changing my oil, I’m now looking at upgraded shock and suspension options and changes to the intake system. That sure beats disposing of used motor oil.

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