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Learning with Lecky: Keep it Close

December 1, 2008
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In the present economy, outsourcing of design is a common choice. Companies need to accomplish more with smaller teams in every department, including engineering. Unfortunately, I regularly encounter failed design outsourcing projects. They bring me a steady stream of work, but it is work I would rather not have to do, because it is a waste of all of our already-strained resources.

So hear my plea: Beware of outsourcing prototype design. It is just as hard, expensive and time-consuming as doing it internally. Monitoring a far-away design and development firm requires just as much diligence as monitoring the design team inside your own walls, whether they are designing circuits, cameras, candy or chandeliers. And while you have a chance of coincidentally noticing problems in your own design team, you will be totally unaware of issues that are occurring thousands of miles away… until it is too late.

I’m not saying we should stop outsourcing design or fabrication-in fact, in today’s economy it is critical to learn how to do just that when it makes sense. But for rapid prototyping and fast-evolving designs, keep it in-house, use consultants, or work with the design firm at the end of your street. The requirements and component interactions are just too complicated at the prototype stage to tolerate the risk.

Here’s an example. I recently met with a client having problems with an embedded controller design. They had subcontracted their circuit board design to a low-bid, quick-turn vendor in the Midwest (I’ll call them MWPCB) for an 8-day turn on a printed circuit board design… only a few days for schematic capture, a few days for layout and a few days for fabrication.

Now, this schedule isn’t totally outlandish. When I was an electrical engineering manager, we would regularly hit similar schedules. But my team was already intimate with the problem and the needs, our staff engineers would work schematics and layouts in parallel, and we could feed information to an amazing tech who would be ordering the bare boards and components off the BOM and preparing for in-house semi-automatic placement while the design was solidifying.

In my client’s case, the design was sub-subcontracted (without the client’s knowledge) to a foreign firm that honestly couldn’t possibly have had enough information to do a top-quality job. Furthermore, since they were sub-subcontractors-in-secret, they could not readily pose questions to the original customer, and had to operate in the dark.

So you can guess how it went: yes, boards arrived ten days after the order was placed. And of course, they did not function as designed. The design was terrible, the layout was worse, and the workmanship was horrendous.

Another order was placed to MWPCB with a specific task list for modifications and enhancements. MWPCB outsourced the redesign of the board to a different foreign vendor who used a different schematic capture and layout tool, and so who completely redesigned the board from scratch, with a different number of layers, and so on, resulting in yet another faulty design incorrectly executed. It is amazing to me how often projects go from “gotta, gotta, gotta have it in X days no matter what” to weeks and months of creeping misery, delay and frustration.

And what if you’re not designing electronics? Mechanical and process design and fabrication run the same risks-prototypes are not completely specified, even if you think they are. Things change, roadblocks are found, materials become unavailable, and the engineers must, and will, make decisions on the fly. My rule is that a design engineer makes 1,000 decisions per day, and only 50% of them are guided by formal specifications and requirements-if you’re lucky. Do you want the other 500 decisions being made near your marketing team where the engineer might occasionally ask for guidance, or ten time zones away, where he will not?

My client was driven to faraway design houses by the fact that the local houses wanted “too much time and too much money” for the design. As you can see, the local houses would have been faster and cheaper. Theirs is not an isolated case. In my experience, theirs is actually the most-likely experience. Beware!

Ned Lecky is the owner of Lecky Integration (Little Falls, NY). You can reach Ned at ned@lecky.com.
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