Nowadays, the term "online" is synonymous with convenience. The 24-hour, self-service Web allows its users to be in the driver seat. Vast amounts of information and resources are available at our fingertips instantly, whenever we may need it. Of course, among the user group are engineers, who can choose from the tremendous variety of design information and tools available via many different sources. Never before have so many design resources been available straight from the desktop, laptop, palmtop, and so forth.
With the myriad of Web sites out there, where should you point your browser when you need answers to those tough design questions? Most semiconductor, system, and software vendors offer design resources on their Web sites. There is also a good number of vendor-independent Web sites. These latter sites may offer design tips and techniques, allow designers to exchange information, dispense free design software and support, or act as a sort of information clearinghouse, routing users to the article or Web site of their choice (see the table).
However, the majority of online design resources are found at the vendor Web sites. You needn't be a customer to benefit. Even if designers haven't yet decided which parts they will use, these Web sites are still quite helpful. For one thing, they often contain generic design information targeted at every level from novice to seasoned expert. In addition, most sites automate part searches and evaluation.
Manufacturers generally put all of their technical documentation online, with product data sheets and application notes being standard fare. Yet many of today's sites now provide further levels of sophistication, offering online technical seminars, forums, tools, and software models.
EASY TO NAVIGATE
Companies are investing lots of time and resources to ensure that their sites are easy to navigate, assisting engineers in their ever shrinking design cycles. At Analog Devices Inc. (www.analog.com), the Web design team struggled with the tradeoffs between the volume of information on the site and to what extent that volume would compromise the overall Web site experience, says Mark Skillings, director of marketing.
Analog Devices' site has an increased emphasis on online tools. The company recently added the Virtual Design Center, which includes interactive tools to help users choose a part or apply a part within their design. A powerful parametric search engine can find a part for use, and if the exact part isn't available, it locates a part that's "close." The tools can also configure a part and determine if a part is being used within its defined boundaries. There is also a variety of calculators.
In general, engineers like the self-service capability offered by Web sites. A convenient self-service feature of many semiconductor Web sites is the ability to order sample parts for quick delivery. For instance, users can order a sample from any point on the Analog Devices Web site. As with many semiconductor companies, delivery is generally within 24 hours.
An important distinction between ordering samples by phone or online is that online access is available all day, every day, including weekends and holidays. In the case of Analog Devices, sample requests are linked to an automated ordering system that will deliver a part when you need it.
In addition to ordering samples, typically users can purchase products online. Apex Microtechnology Corp. (www.apexmicrotech.com), for example, offers an online store where engineers can buy small quantities of the company's product or evaluation kits. In fact, the Apex evaluation kits cost 25% less online.
Companies spend lots of time and effort on deciding which features and information will reside on their site. Christer Ljungdahl, Web manager for National Instruments Corp. (www.ni.com), explains that the company used a variety of different resources to determine what features to include on the site. First, it examined the types of questions that application engineers most frequently answered when working directly with customers. National Instruments also conducted usability surveys of customers, determining what specific information they need to be successful. Finally, it evaluated other sites and reviewed industry studies that evaluated which technical support sites are most effective and why.
On top of standard features like product information, National Instruments brings some innovative design resources to the table. For example, NI Developer Zone is an online developer community with over 4000 tutorials, application notes, presentations, and example code that assists engineers with their application development (Fig. 1). Much of the content in this area of the site is not product-specific. Rather, it simply focuses on measurement and automation concepts.
Actually, quite a few vendor Web sites offer product-independent resources. A number of them offer online seminars that aren't always tied to a specific product. Users can usually download the materials at any time. The actual seminars are live or prerecorded. Either way, they're often broadcast with some type of presenter on hand to answer questions by audio or through e-mail.
Online seminars are a valuable resource for many designers who can't attend in-person seminars because of logistical or cost constraints. It's a great way for companies to offer their expertise over a large geographic area.
A good amount of product-independent analog design information is available online from National Semiconductor Corp. (www.national.com). Phil Gibson, vice president of Web business and sales automation, says that National's Web site targets analog design for both novices and experts, with the goal of getting them through the design process as quickly as possible.
Four sections make up the site: Select, Design, Buy, and Explore. The Select section helps users find the part they need, while the Design section contains all the technical support tools necessary to complete a project, including the company's Webench tool. Webench is a suite of free design tools, interactive product selectors, online information, and search engines. Buy is a section for ordering samples, parts, and evaluation boards.
Explore contains a wealth of generic analog design information. Online seminars, a technical journal, and many other features combine for a powerful design resource. Within Explore is "Analog University," an online educational resource devoted entirely to analog semiconductor technologies.
Designed to meet the information needs of beginner, mid-career, and experienced design engineers, Analog University is a no-cost online tool created to give designers fast access to technical information and training. Well known analog guru and Electronic Design columnist Bob Pease serves as the dean. Students choose from 22 online curriculums. After the introductory seminar, each Analog University course progresses through interactive reading and research assignments. Participants are tested and awarded a certificate of completion.
Last May, the company introduced Solutions.National.com, an interactive online design support environment that reduces the time needed to find the appropriate products for an application (Fig. 2). It features 30 color-coded block diagrams, organized for specific applications, in eight major market categories: automotive, broadband communications, displays, industrial, medical systems, personal/consumer electronics, power, and wireless communications.
Actel Corp. (www.actel.com) recently expanded its Web-based resource center for ASIC and FPGA design engineers. Launched in September of last year, the Actel Resource Center provides customers with a clearinghouse of data on important industry issues and trends, such as the issue of "green" packaging. The Resource Center offers designers an online design resource for power estimation, firm error rate calculation, security information, and packaging selection, to name a few. In addition, the Center includes technology tutorials, FAQs, market overviews, application notes, white papers, extensive glossaries of industry terms, and links to other relevant articles and third-party resources. Other topics and issues will be added as appropriate.
Beyond the Resource Center, Actel offers several tools to provide users with technical resources on its Web site. For example, users can access EDA design tools, search the customer support database, request technical support, and access technical support documentation through the Web site.
YOUR OPINION COUNTS
Because Web sites are important to designers, companies work hard to solicit feedback to improve their sites. They're eager to hear from their users, and most offer feedback buttons that allow designers to e-mail their suggestions. But many companies go further than that. Analog Devices, for instance, sends teams into actual design environments to observe designers in action to see exactly how they use the Web site. They learn firsthand what gives designers trouble and subsequently how they can improve the site to make it more productive.
Other companies use focus groups to obtain feedback. Texas Instruments Inc. (www.ti.com) not only conducts focus groups with its own customers, but also with competitors' customers. TI uses the focus groups for Web usability testing. The company also solicits explicit feedback through e-mail and its call centers. Scott Roller, TI's director of Internet marketing, stresses that the company strives to address the biggest customer pain points. For example, the company focused its resources on improving the site's search capabilities last year. Later this year, TI plans to update product folders to be more comprehensive, including cross-references of all appropriate support information.
TI's Web site uses what the company considers the four-phase customer design cycle as a framework: discovery, evaluation, design, and test/ramp to production. The site aims to serve each phase with a subset of resources that are critical to that portion of the design. The first two phases require mainly product information because the user hasn't yet picked a part. But from design through production, the Web site must support the design process effectively.
Content on the TI site is basically divided into products, applications, and technical support. The support area contains technical documents and some online training. It also features KnowledgeBase, specific resources about product groups that are organized into an easily searchable format. There are KnowledgeBase areas for DSP, analog, and logic parts.
Customer feedback prompted Apex to completely redo its Web site about a year ago. Sam Robinson, a company applications engineer, explains that this was done to simplify and streamline information retrieval. The goal of the redesign, he explains, was "the fewest clicks to the user information."
Apex includes application notes, technical articles, Spice models, and software tools on its site. The centerpiece of the software-tools area is Power Design. This spreadsheet-based tool helps users select products and can shave hours off of analysis time. The self-documenting spreadsheet program actually automates the calculations and graph generation associated with stability analysis, internal power dissipation, pulse-width-modulation filter design, and current limit. Also included in the spreadsheet design are examples that provide a good tutorial on power-amplifier design.
PEOPLE HELPING PEOPLE
In some cases, the source of the online design resources may not necessarily come from the company itself. For example, Texas Instruments' site includes peer-to-peer support. In addition to the self-service support and company-assisted support through e-mail, this site features discussion groups in which designers can draw from each other's experience and expertise. Over 15,000 users view the discussion groups each month, and there is an average of 250 posts per month.
National Instruments offers NI Developer Exchange, a series of newsgroup-like discussion forums with a number of features that are more powerful and user-friendly than traditional newsgroups. These forums are also monitored by National Instruments' application engineers, so if a user posts a question that's not answered by another user within a couple of days, a company engineer will post a response.
In addition, the National Instruments site provides an automated knowledge management tool. When an application engineer documents the solution to a single customer's issue, that solution automatically becomes available to all visitors to ni.com, as well as to all application engineers.
According to Christer Ljungdahl of National Instruments, the Web has allowed the large and growing user community to help each other. By providing an effective medium for the exchange of ideas and solutions on issues, related to but not necessarily directly tied to National's products, the Web has become a crucial extension to the company's direct product support, he claims. Ljungdahl estimates that Web resources alone are resolving over 50% of all support-related online visits.
Although Web sites will never replace the applications engineer, Robinson explains that Apex's site is the center of the company's technical support effort. Often, he says, the applications engineers end up pointing phone calls right to the Web site. In addition, the Web site allows the company to offer technical support to hard-to-reach international users, who generally rely heavily on the Web.
The self-service resources on its Web site are also very important to the overall technical support package provided by Intel Corp. (www.intel.com). Easy access to technical product information, design solutions, application notes, and programs and networks dedicated to particular types of hardware and software developers is the core of Intel's developer area.
The Intel "Software College" provides training on tools and technologies from instructors with processor expertise. Training can be done in person, but a sizable amount of online courses is offered. There are more than 106 online courses that consist of self-paced Web study. They can be accessed any time from any place. Course topics cover software-development tools, processors, various software technologies, operating systems, and networking and communications. There are also online courses about digital media and games, with such topics as "3D Animation."
Moreover, the Intel Learning Network offers training for Intel technologies and products. The Web-based training and online seminars include topics in computing, communications, e-business, and other technologies. Users find a course in the online training catalog and can download it using the Learning Network Mobile Player software. The course is then automatically transferred to your hard drive.
While there are excellent resources available online, some designers can get just so far in their Web transaction before phone or field-application engineering assistance becomes necessary. Phone and in-person support isn't going away, but many companies feel their Web sites are the most important resource that they offer designers.
Online design resources offer a vast sea of information and will only continue to grow in size and sophistication in the future. No matter what type of design help you need, the Web offers the online resources to get your job done.